Updated, 7:45 p.m.:
Records requests that University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall filed with the University of Texas at Austin were the subject of hours of testimony Tuesday afternoon during a legislative committee hearing, as witnesses discussed the volume and legality of the requests, as well as the motivation behind the requests.
The House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations heard from Kevin Hegarty, UT-Austin’s chief financial officer and custodian of records, and Carol Longoria, the university’s open records coordinator. The committee is mulling whether to file articles of impeachment against Hall, in part for the strain that he is accused of putting on UT-Austin’s staff.
Hegarty told the committee that his office has had to expand — from about two people in the office before Hall’s requests began to up to seven people on a given day now — to accommodate Hall’s demands for information. In the hearing, it was said that his requests have yielded 800,000 documents.
“We will deal with the volume,” Hegarty said. “My concern is the nature of the information.”
Concerns were raised over whether Hall had received private data, such as individuals’ tax information, in the process of the request. Hegarty and Longoria both said they raised the issue, but were told by the UT System’s lawyers that they did not have the authority to prevent Hall from getting the information he desired.
“I don’t think the requests were reasonable, but reasonable was just the tip of the iceberg for me,” Longoria said.
Hegarty said he was scared about the legal ramifications if private information was shared, as well as professional ramifications for protesting how documents were being handled. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, advised Hegarty to get his own lawyer — something Hegarty said he had been prevented from doing by the UT System.
Hall’s lawyer, Allen Van Fleet, told reporters that Hall had been careful not to distribute any private information, and he expressed concern about the tone of the questioning during the hearing.
“I think it’s one-sided by people who have decided what they want to do with Regent Hall,” he said.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, observed that the relationship between the system and the university’s open records officers appears to be “less than ideal.”
Committee members and the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing wondered what Hall’s motivation for digging into records could be. Hegarty also noted that the system has multiple investigations of the campus currently in progress, including inquiries on the school’s admissions process and on UT-Austin President Bill Powers’ travel — including personal travel — over the course of his presidency.
As the hearing proceeded Tuesday, the system called a special meeting of the board, scheduled for Friday, at which the committee’s hearings and the investigation of UT-Austin admissions will be discussed behind closed doors in executive session.
Late Tuesday night, the system issued a statement, saying: “In every instance, including those in which University of Texas System or board of regents attorneys conferred with UT-Austin campus officials and attorneys regarding requests for documents, the protection of the privacy of student personal and health information has been a top priority. UT System and BOR attorneys are very committed to compliance with privacy laws, and the UT System holds in the highest regard the confidentiality of protected student, faculty and staff information."
Hall and other members of the board have been accused by lawmakers, including state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who testified earlier in the day, of being on a “witch hunt” to oust Powers.
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, indicated that unless it could be proved that any laws were actually broken, the whole matter might be boiled down to just being a case of “bad blood between a regent and a president."
Van Fleet said that Hall was motivated by a desire to better understand how the university responds to record requests and to improve the system. Though, during his testimony, Hegarty noted that Hall, who has been a regent for more than two years, has only made one recommendation for improvements, which was to post requests publicly online.
"I do believe that there is enough evidence to show that Mr. Hall should not be allowed to continue in his current capacity as a regent," Pitts told the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Operations, which is investigating whether articles of impeachment should be filed against Hall.
Hall has been accused of overstepping his authority in making demands on the staff of the University of Texas at Austin, potentially mishandling private student information, and providing inadequate information on his application to be a regent. In a letter sent in August to the co-chairs of the committee, a lawyer for Hall says his client has been driven to dig deeper into the operations at UT-Austin because of misgivings about the influence of politicians on the admissions process, misleading institutional fundraising reporting and insufficient investigation of questionable compensation practices at the University of Texas School of Law.
Pitts said Tuesday that because of Hall's narrow focus on the flagship, which the regent has requested significant amounts of information from, allegedly at a significant cost of time and money to the university's staff, he should be impeached. "It’s not the volume," Pitts said, "but it is what’s behind all this. It’s a fishing expedition at the very least. It is an intent to go on a witch hunt, to try to find the information to hurt the University of Texas president or to hurt members of this Legislature."
A vocal opponent of Hall's role on the board, Pitts has accused Hall of being on a mission to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers.
Hall, who lives in Dallas, did not attend the hearing. His lawyer, Allan Van Fleet, said he told Hall to watch the hearing remotely to avoid issues with news outlets. Van Fleet said Hall was "actually anxious to come down here and tell his story.”
Pitts reminded the panel's members on Tuesday that they did not need to prove that the regent did anything illegal in order to justify impeachment. "We only have to show misconduct and abuse of power," he said.
Pitts had filed a resolution earlier this year that would have begun impeachment proceedings against Hall. Rather than go down that route, Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, opted to turn the matter over to the committee for an investigation.
Tuesday marked the first time the committee, which is co-chaired by state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, heard public witness testimony regarding Hall. Further hearings are scheduled for Wednesday, as well as in November and December. Flynn made it clear that they would take as much time as members feel is needed to complete the investigation.
Both committee leaders stressed the gravity and historical nature of the proceeding — if Hall were to be impeached, he would be the first nonelected official in the state to be so. "We’re not just here to clear the air surrounding a contentious series of events," Alvarado said. "We’re here to set the record straight."
At the outset of Tuesday's hearing, committee members attempted to establish the scope of their investigation. State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, asked if it would be confined to Hall or if they would be looking into issues that have been raised in Hall's defense, such as allegations of favoritism in the UT-Austin admissions process. He was told that the investigation would stay within the confines of the proclamation from the speaker, which was fairly broad in scope, allowing them to investigate any gubernatorial appointee.
With regard to Hall's criticisms of the UT-Austin admissions process, Pitts, who had acknowledged — and reiterated on Tuesday — that he has written letters of recommendation for potential students, including his son, said that the issue had nothing to do with why he wanted to see the regent removed.
Previous requests from Van Fleet and Hall's legal team that they be allowed to cross-examine witnesses have been rejected by the committee. Van Fleet told reporters during a break that, if he could have questioned Pitts, he would have asked the lawmaker what he discussed with Powers in the president's box at football games and what employer would put any weight on a recommendation made by an applicant’s father, among other issues.
Pitts indicated that he would make himself available to the committee if they had further questions. In the meantime, several others are expected to testify. On Tuesday, the committee issued subpoenas for UT-Austin's chief financial officer, Kevin Hegarty, its public information officer Carol Longoria, and the University of Texas System's former general counsel Barry Burgdorf.