A committee of the Texas House of Representatives voted, 7 to 1, on Monday that grounds exist to impeach Wallace L. Hall Jr., the regent who has inundated the University of Texas at Austin with records requests in an apparent bid to unearth information critical of the flagship campus and its president.
The vote is just the first step in a lengthy process that will continue on May 21, when the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations will consider whether to move ahead with articles of impeachment. If approved, the articles would then be sent to the full House, then on to the Texas Senate for a trial.
This is the first time in state history that Texas lawmakers have voted that grounds for impeachment exist for a gubernatorial appointee, State Rep. Carol Alvarado, the committee’s co-chair, pointed out. "The outcome of today’s vote will be setting a standard on appointee conduct for years to come," she said.
Mr. Hall declined to appear before the committee or to provide witnesses or explanations for his actions. But the Dallas businessman, who has been accused of violating student-privacy laws in his quest for information, struck a defiant tone in a written statement after the vote.
"When a board encounters problems, cover-ups, and intransigence at a taxpayer-funded institution, is the proper response to hold those who are responsible accountable, or to impeach the board member?" he wrote.
"My efforts as a regent are to serve the interests of our great educational institutions, the students, faculty, and staff who make them great, and the taxpayers who fund them, not to appease a privileged class who abuse them."
Ms. Alvarado, a Democrat, and other committee members appealed to Mr. Hall to avert a lengthy and expensive legislative process by voluntarily stepping down from the university system’s Board of Regents. They also called on Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed Mr. Hall in 2011, to ask him to resign, and suggested that the board do its part to resolve the matter by registering a vote of no confidence in him. No one on the board or in the governor’s office immediately responded to interview requests.
Mr. Hall’s critics have accused him of being on a witch hunt to oust the flagship’s president, William C. Powers Jr. The regent’s voluminous records requests include all of the president’s personal and business travel expenses for his entire eight-year presidency.
Mr. Hall's supporters counter that he has simply been fulfilling his duties as a regent, digging up information about a questionable loan program and an allegedly cozy relationship between politicians and the university.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that has supported Mr. Hall, issued a statement on Monday calling the committee’s vote "a step backwards on transparency and accountability" in Texas government.
"For exercising his right and duty to request information of one of the universities he is entrusted with overseeing, Wallace Hall now faces impeachment and possibly jail," said Thomas Lindsay, director of the foundation’s Center for Higher Education.
Ms. Alvarado said she understood that reining in a regent could have a chilling effect on boards’ willingness to dig deep at a time when boards have been criticized as being too detached. But she said she was "equally concerned about the chilling effect Regent Hall’s behavior will have on university presidents and administrations if it remains unchecked."
State Rep. Dan Flynn, a Republican, opened the hearing by paraphrasing from a letter he wrote his colleagues last week in which he described Mr. Hall’s "deliberate bullying tactics" in seeking hundreds of thousands of pages of documents over a two-year period.
Among those attending the public hearing was Luci Baines Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose presidential library is on the Austin campus. Ms. Johnson’s mother, Lady Bird Johnson, served a six-year term on the university system’s Board of Regents in the 1970s. In fact, she was poring through stacks of her "regents homework" when the former president suffered a fatal heart attack at his Central Texas ranch, in 1973, Luci Johnson said in an emotional interview on Monday.
"I want to stand up for the university I love and the president and the administration I believe in," she said. "My mother served at a time when Democrats and Republicans on the board rose above politics to work with the university to serve the public good. This is a time we sorely need and deeply miss."
Ms. Johnson said she found Mr. Hall’s tactics damaging and unnecessary. "President Powers and his staff have been asked to redirect their time and talent from the critical business of education to respond to this very inflammatory, hostile environment," she said.
Meanwhile, another advocacy group that has been supporting the flagship campus in its battles with reform-minded regents appointed by Governor Perry called the committee’s vote unfortunate but necessary. "The distraction and dysfunction caused by Regent Hall’s actions has caused substantial damage to UT Austin and the UT System, and the people of Texas deserve better from those given responsibility to govern," the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education’s statement said.