A legislative committee voted Monday to censure a University of Texas system regent who has flooded the university with open-records requests, but it said it hasn’t ruled out the possibility of recommending impeachment down the road.
The 6-to-1 vote to admonish Wallace L. Hall Jr. came after the Texas House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations spent nearly four hours discussing the matter behind closed doors. After reviewing hundreds of hours of testimony and thousands of pages of documents produced over a yearlong investigation, the committee stopped short of recommending impeachment, even though it had earlier found that grounds exist for taking that action. Instead, it issued a 27-page "motion of admonishment and censure," a step that it called unprecedented.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time in state history that a regent has been admonished and censured," State Rep. Dan Flynn, a Republican and co-chair of the committee, said.
The document cites "numerous willful actions by Mr. Hall that constitute either misconduct, incompetency in the performance of official duties, or behavior unbefitting a nominee for and holder of a state office." The document also criticizes university system officials for doing too little to rein Mr. Hall in.
Mr. Hall, who declined to appear before the committee, released a statement saying the committee’s actions "are based on distortions, untruths, and deliberate misrepresentations," and accusing the committee of improperly intervening in university system matters.
The Travis County district attorney’s office is conducting a separate probe into possible criminal charges related to Mr. Hall’s handling of confidential student documents, and there has been widespread speculation that the committee might go ahead with the impeachment option if Mr. Hall is indicted.
"Make no mistake that the option for impeachment of Regent Hall still exists," said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Democrat and co-chair of the committee.
Paul Foster, chairman of the UT Board of Regents, also released a statement saying that "at no time has there been a loss of institutional control within the University of Texas System," either by the board or the chancellor. He also said he was unaware of any actions by a board or system official that violated state laws or university policies.
"While I and others may not always concur with the style and methods employed by Regent Wallace Hall, I will affirm that he has always diligently worked to further what he sees as the best interests of the UT System," Mr. Foster said.
Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed Mr. Hall in 2011, released a statement Monday praising Mr. Hall for asking tough questions and holding people accountable for their actions "even in the face of withering personal attacks." He added that "I hope today closes this ugly chapter and Regent Hall’s critics can stop wasting time and start focusing on what’s important, ensuring higher education is affordable, accessible, and accountable to all Texans."
The legislative investigation, which has cost taxpayers well over $500,000, culminated in a 174-page report from an outside lawyer hired by the committee that outlined four possible grounds for impeaching Mr. Hall. They included his "unreasonable and burdensome requests for records and information from UT-Austin."
After reviewing the report, the House committee voted in May that grounds for taking that action existed and it began drawing up articles of impeachment.
Mr. Hall, a Dallas businessman, has been the focus of heated arguments about the appropriate role of a university trustee.
To his supporters, his demand for and scrutiny of dozens of boxes of documents from the flagship campus reflect his commitment to uncovering potential wrongdoing that less-attentive boards might overlook.
One area of interest for him has been on proving that state politicians have used their political clout to get friends and relatives admitted to the university. That complaint has gained some traction and is the subject of an outside investigation of admissions practices across the University of Texas System.
"I hope and expect that legislators will continue with the same seriousness to investigate the issues Regent Hall has brought to light," Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative-leaning group, said in an interview after the vote.
To his detractors, Mr. Hall is a conservative zealot intent on digging up dirt that would justify firing the flagship’s president, William C. Powers Jr. Mr. Powers, who clashed with the university system’s chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, was eventually pressured to resign, but after an outpouring of support from faculty members, students, and alumni, he was allowed to stay on as president for one more year.
The motion to censure paints a picture of a regent who repeatedly ignores advice and requests from system officials, including a request from the regents’ chair that he resign, and threatened those who testified against him. "Mr. Hall has insisted that system employees and officers perform each of many requested tasks with almost Prussian efficiency," it says, "… but Mr. Hall does not meet the high standards he expects of others."
The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, an advocacy group that has been supporting the flagship in its battles with reform-minded regents, issued a statement saying that Mr. Hall’s actions have "shredded" the confidence Texans should have in gubernatorial appointees.
"Today’s censure sends an important signal that the Texas Legislature will not stand for abuse of power by political appointees," it said.
State Rep. Charles Perry, a Republican, cast the sole dissenting vote on the censure. He said after Monday’s hearing that he didn’t think lawmakers should be "micromanaging" matters at the university by injecting themselves into a dispute between Mr. Hall and Mr. Powers, "two people with egos that got out of control."