In the last month, both Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, have reached out to gubernatorial appointees to share their thoughts on government oversight, which has become a touchy subject in light of an investigation of a University of Texas System regent.
In June, Straus expanded the authority of the House Select Committee on State Agency Operations, which immediately launched an inquiry that focused on UT Regent Wallace Hall, who was appointed by Perry. If Hall were impeached as a result of the investigation, he would be the first gubernatorial appointee in the state’s history to face such an action.
The speaker's instructions to the committee were not solely focused on a single appointee of a single university system. In his proclamation, Straus said that the committee "shall monitor the conduct of individuals appointed to offices of the executive branch of state government, including university regents, to ensure that such officers are acting in the best interest of the agencies and institutions they govern."
A spokeswoman for Perry said in June that Straus' proclamation sent a "chilling message." And the governor issued a letter in late November to his appointees citing that particular phrase from the proclamation, claiming that, because of it, some appointees had "expressed concerns that you should limit your oversight roles."
"Unfortunately," Perry wrote in his letter, which was obtained by the Tribune, "the message from some in the Legislature to the citizens who oversee state agencies seems to be: exercise your legal and fiduciary duty responsibility at your own risk."
Hall found himself at the center of the committee’s investigation after questions were raised about the intensive investigations he was conducting into the operations of the University of Texas at Austin. He has said he uncovered questionable practices and significant pushback from the university, necessitating that he dig deeper (University officials told the committee they have turned over more than 800,000 documents to the regent). But some lawmakers have described Hall's behavior as a "witch hunt" designed to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers.
"When state employees and agencies resist, stonewall or seek to prevent questions from being asked or answered, Texans should be deeply troubled.” Perry wrote in his letter to appointees. “Our elected representatives should be outraged when a state agency resists answering tough questions."
After Perry's letter was written, Hall declined the transparency committee's invitation to testify before the panel. The committee declined to issue him a subpoena, which they had been willing to do for most other witnesses, and he refused to appear without one. The committee is awaiting a final report of its investigation to be drafted. The members will determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Hall after the report is reviewed in the coming month.
In his letter, Perry cited four examples, which he noted are outside "the norm," that he said highlighted the need for effective oversight of state agencies by gubernatorial appointees: financial mismanagement at Texas Southern University in 2006, accusations of rape against some Texas Youth Commission guards in 2007, charges of "fight club" brawls being organized at the Texas State School in Corpus Christi in 2009, and — from out of state — the Penn State sex abuse scandal of 2011.
He asked his appointees to "continue to do your job in a responsible manner, acting within the law, protecting tax dollars and asking hard questions of our state agencies, even when that makes some uncomfortable."
On Friday, Straus issued his own letter to the state's many gubernatorial appointees, which was also obtained by the Tribune. He wrote that he had recently become aware of Perry's letter and was writing to "agree with and expand" on the governor's comments.
He wrote that oversight of state agencies was "never meant to be comfortable or easy," and added that "both board members and the Legislature need to ask difficult questions."
The transparency committee was created, after discussions with the governor, Straus wrote, "so that we do not have to choose between preserving the efficient operation of state government and drawing a veil of secrecy around agency operations."
He cited examples of legislative oversight leading to important changes on state boards, including the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the Texas Youth Commission, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the Texas Lottery Commission and the University of Texas Investment Management Company.
As for the concerns raised in the governor’s letter, Straus responded, "The House does not seek to limit oversight."
"Rather," he wrote, "the House wants effective and appropriate oversight that allows agencies to operate properly and efficiently. On the rare occasion that executive appointees appear to be using their authority to harm the agencies they oversee, the Legislature will continue to exercise its own oversight responsibilities."