There could be grounds to impeach University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall on at least on at least four different counts, according to a report by the special counsel to the legislative committee that has been investigating the controversial gubernatorial appointee.
The report, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune on Monday night on the condition that it not be published in its entirety, is the handiwork of a team led by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, which reviewed more than 150,000 pages of documents and sat through dozens of hours of interviews and testimony before the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations during the second half of 2013.
Hall, who was tapped for the UT System board by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hardin said he would not discuss the report until it was made public by the committee.
No explicit recommendation is issued in the report, which will in turn inform a final report from the committee. Public hearings on the matter concluded in December.
If the committee opts to pursue any of the articles outlined in the Hardin report, the matter will be sent to the full House of Representatives. If a majority of the members of that body approve impeachment, the Texas Senate would convene as a court to pass final judgment on Hall.
Rather than dictating the committee’s final decision, Hardin wrote in an April 1 letter to co-chairs Dan Flynn, R-Van, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, that he and his team “instead confined ourselves to setting out what conduct we discovered and whether or not it would legally and factually support impeachment should the committee choose that as its recommendation to the full House of Representatives.”
“We have found that it does,” he said.
As the Houston Chronicle first noted on Monday, Hardin’s report goes on to raise the possibility that Hall may have, in separate instances, violated the law.
Ironically, a substantial number of the actions that the Hardin report highlights as potentially triggering impeachment occurred in part or entirely because of the committee’s investigation. The possibility also exists that Hall could be impeached because of incidents that occurred after, or were not known when, the proceedings were launched.
It was back on June 25, 2013, that House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, issued a proclamation expanding the committee’s authority so that it could examine the impeachability of gubernatorial appointees. No such appointee has ever been impeached in Texas history.
Hall was singled out as the first — and, so far, only — subject of the committee’s scrutiny because of a resolution previously filed but never brought up for a vote by state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, calling for the House to launch impeachment proceedings against the regent.
Pitts has publicly accused Hall of being on a “witch hunt” to oust University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. Hardin’s report likens Hall to “a roving inspector general in search of a problem rather than a solution.”
Hall has countered that he has been duty-bound to look into suspected misbehavior at the university, such as favoritism in admissions and inaccurate accounting of fundraising donations. In the absence of other willing individuals, Hall personally initiated massive inquiries into the institution’s operations.
The committee initially intended to focus on three questions raised by Pitts, per the report: “(1) Did Hall fail to disclose material information on his regent application? (2) Did Hall reveal information about students that violated their privacy? And (3) Did Hall exceed his role as a regent by constantly requesting massive information from the University of Texas?”
Findings during the course of the investigation prompted the committee to broaden the scope of its investigation.
“Most notably,” the report states, “the committee did not initially realize, and could not have realized that Hall’s conduct after the conclusion of the public hearings would be at least as troubling, if not more, than the conduct known to members of the house in June 2013.”
One of the four items listed as a sufficient basis for the committee to propose articles of impeachment is Hall’s treatment of Powers, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT-Austin chief financial officer Kevin Hegarty.
Hall sent emails to Cigarroa questioning his job performance because he did not impose consequences on Powers and Hegarty for what Hall believed to be inaccurate and even misleading testimony before the committee.
The committee had expressly asked that no negative employment actions be taken against anyone involved in their investigation. The Hardin report finds that Hall’s “pressure on those witnesses to alter testimony provided to the committee violated UT System policy and possibly the Texas Penal Code.”
Another potential impeachable offense cited by the Hardin report is Hall’s allegedly “improper” use of confidential information, some of which the report infers was used to publicly embarrass Hall’s critics.
An email pertaining to the process by which Pitts’ son gained admission to UT-Austin’s law school was apparently the catalyst for Hall’s inquiry on that subject. The Hardin report concludes that the email was protected by federal student privacy laws.
Though Hall was warned of that possibility by the board’s general counsel, the regent shared that email with his lawyers, and the information contained within it was subsequently leaked to media outlets as the transparency committee’s investigation intensified.
Additionally, the report says that Hall’s “unreasonable and burdensome requests for records and information from UT-Austin provided, and continues to provide, a sufficient basis for the committee to propose articles of impeachment.” His requests for information, the report notes, continued throughout and even after the committee’s hearings into whether or not they were appropriate
An incident cited as a fourth basis for impeachment is a 2012 trip Hall took to a meeting in Washington, D.C., between UT-Austin representatives and officials at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which sets fundraising reporting standards for universities. The two organizations had differing opinions about how UT-Austin should report in-kind software donations. Hall argued with CASE against UT-Austin’s position. He later pushed to have the university’s capital campaign totals significantly reduced.
The Hardin report finds that Hall’s behavior in this matter “constituted misconduct, incompetency, and a disregard for the best interests of UT-Austin and the UT System.”
“Because malignant management and personal skills alone do not likely warrant legislative action,” the report said at one point, “counsel also examined whether Hall’s problematic conduct was directed at the best interests of the institutions he was appointed to serve. It was not.”
The report's findings are not entirely bad news for Hall. Hardin's team concluded some alleged offenses were not impeachable — at least not when considered independently. Issues raised in the course of the investigation that are unlikely to make it to the committee’s final recommendations include the fact that Hall’s application to be a regent omitted some lawsuits to which he was a party, his “improper and incompetent” involvement in efforts to recruit a new head coach for UT-Austin’s football team, his “zealous preoccupation” with UT-Austin and Powers, and his “frustration with the committee’s investigative efforts.”
Hall declined repeated invitations to testify before the committee. His lawyers advised him not to do so without a subpoena, which the committee declined to issue.
"As the subject of an impeachment investigation, Hall has a right to leave the fact finder to reach its own conclusion without his assistance or cooperation," the Hardin report advised the committee. "Sometimes, this right is exercised out of self-interest, like when one chooses not to provide potentially incriminating information against himself."
The report notes that declining to testify is not itself an impeachable offense.
But in addition to the four potential articles of impeachment, the report also raises other issues and questions about Hall.
For example, his adherence to the Texas Public Information Act is called into question. According to the report, there was an open records request to which Hall indicated, in no uncertain terms, that he did not possess any responsive material. The committee's investigation later turned up a document that was in Hall's possession that Hardin's team believes he would have been required to turn over. Hall has previously accused UT-Austin officials of failing to turn over requested material.
The report also suggests that Hall’s efforts to “tamper” with the testimony from Cigarroa, Powers and Hegarty might subject him to criminal liability under a specific provision of the Texas Penal Code. This matter is said to warrant further examination.
“It is unclear at this time,” the note read, “whether the undisputed facts known to the committee support a finding that Hall unlawfully threatened to ‘harm’ those witnesses as required under that offense.”
Texas is one of nine states in which the state constitution is silent on the subject of what constitutes grounds for impeachment.
In 1975, the last time a legislative committee of this sort recommended impeachment of a state official — in that case, a district judge — it determined that “grounds for impeachment … can be any misconduct of an officer, public or private, of such a character as to indicate unfitness for office.”
In Hall’s case, the determination of whether his actions fit that criteria now rests with the eight members of the transparency committee.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Rusty Hardin was a major donor to the Tribune in 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.