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Guest Column: Beware the "Ministry of Truth"

The battle between top legislators and a regent at the University of Texas System might look like a sideshow, but the consequences to open government — not to mention the waste of money — are more serious.

By David Simpson
TT Interview with David Simpson

In 1984, the eerily prophetic tale by George Orwell, the slogans placarded on the side of the “Ministry of Truth” proclaimed:

  • War is Peace
  • Freedom is Slavery
  • Ignorance is Strength

Don’t laugh at this “newspeak” — we ourselves are adopting similar destructive contradictions. For example, the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations is currently investigating a college regent who is making open records requests — lots of them — to uncover truth concerning issues he is charged with overseeing.

The David and Goliath battle between University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall and members of the Texas Legislature would be just a humorous sideshow if the consequences were not so damaging to the prospect of open government and a waste of Texans’ hard-earned money.

Chances are the committee will (as it has announced) have extensive testimony in public but will not allow the accused even a limited ability to cross-examine witnesses (contrary to House Rule 4, Section 13 and precedent). Hundreds of thousands of dollars will be spent by the state on attorney fees. The UT System will be praised. The regent in question will be further demonized. After this is “slow-played,” victory will be declared and everyone will go home with no substantive action taken.

These proceedings are probably not for the actual purpose of impeaching Regent Hall, as some will acknowledge in private. The purpose is to intimidate individuals who would dare question the status quo and, according to House Speaker Joe Straus, “to protect the members.”

Such tactics regrettably occur in cities, counties, and school boards too. If information is requested that offends an administrator entrenched in the good ol’ boy system, the trustee is informed subtly: “Check with the board president before you ask questions.” When subtle doesn’t work, passive aggression kicks in: “If you continue to ask those kinds of questions, you will never get along here.”

By this time most questions are quelled, but for the courageous few, outright attacks follow: “You are undermining the entire system with your pointless requests and are violating the law.”

And it goes steadily downhill to the point where a prudent person would hire an attorney to protect his interests and reputation.

The problem is that many individuals who might otherwise serve in these positions are dissuaded from participating for fear their names and reputations will be defamed just for volunteering for public service. A contribution of their time and talents could end up in an expensive legal battle.

Perhaps a reminder of how the system is supposed to work is in order.

Administrators of universities and schools are responsible to their boards. Board members are entitled and expected to ask questions. Fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility dictates that regents or trustees be provided not just with the information the administration wants them to have, but also with any information they may deem necessary to make informed decisions. Employees should be responsible to answer questions on actions they have taken. If improprieties have occurred, it behooves us all to have that brought to the forefront. However, refusing to answer questions, denying information, or calling in a bully to intimidate the one asking questions does not serve the public. It makes one wonder what’s really going on.

Legislators should think about how our interference and intimidation looks to the general public: A committee on transparency is taking up accusations against a regent who is requesting information to make the process he is charged with overseeing more transparent. Some legislators may believe the regent is micromanaging, yet they want to micromanage his oversight. Is it not misuse of legislative power in the name of an “investigation” to intimidate an individual who appears to be acting according to his office and taking his oversight responsibility seriously?

Consider too that the committee’s proceedings against Hall are akin to an evidentiary hearing in public, not a grand jury whose proceedings are private in order to protect a suspect from being impugned with a charge unless there is sufficient evidence to warrant a full public trial. Hall’s name can be dragged through the mud as long as it is convenient for the committee — and without opportunity for him to question and rebut those who accuse him.

It should be no surprise that constituents often hold the process in disdain. They wonder whether the “investigation” by the state’s “Ministry of Truth” is in reality just another government cover-up. This proceeding does little to allay those suspicions.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, represents HD-7 in the Texas House. 

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