Select Committee on Transparency

Editor’s note: This week, the Texas House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations has heard public testimony concerning UT System Regent Wallace Hall’s conduct vis-a-vis UT-Austin. Beginning in the fall of 2012, Hall overwhelmed UT officials with open records requests for over 120,000 documents, leading many at UT and in the state legislature to allege that he was on a “witch hunt,” with the goal of creating sufficient grounds for the dismissal of UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. The Committee will attempt to determine whether, as his opponents have argued, Hall should be impeached and removed from office. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the Committee heard from several witnesses, including lawyers for Hall and the UT System, Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie — one of Hall’s most prominent critics — and former UT System General Counsel Barry Burgdorf, who resigned in 2013 after submitting a report on unfairly favorable loans granted to UT law school faculty. Burgdorf claims he was encouraged to leave after several regents, Hall foremost among them, wanted his report to lay more blame at Powers’ feet. What follows are some of the hearings’ highlights.

“It’s the first real hearing, but we don’t have a clue what’s going on ... It’s kind of like they’re throwing an impeachment, but we’re not really invited.”

-Allan Van Fleet, lawyer for UT regent Wallace Hall on Monday

“It will be a step toward public disclosure as to what happened and description from live witnesses, as opposed to people announcing their own side of the issue ... The committee’s name is ‘transparency,’ and I think the public will get a chance to look and see what happened and judge for themselves, as will the committee.”

-Committee special counsel Rusty Hardin

“In my opinion Mr. Hall has gone on a fishing expedition in hopes of finding something, anything with which he can use to oust President Powers. If he was truly trying to measure compliance, why would he only target one institution out of the fifteen in the University of Texas System?”

-Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, on Tuesday

“Are regents above the law? Transparency in government does not trump the privacy of those involved.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“We do not have to show Mr. Hall broke the law, we only have to show misconduct and abuse of power.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“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 on Tuesday

“The chancellor [Francisco Cigarroa] met with me and told me that Regent Hall was unhappy with me and the regents aligned with him were unhappy, they were going to make my life difficult.”

-Former UT System general counsel Barry Burgdorf on Wednesday 

Regent Wallace Hall alleges lawmakers unduly influence admissions

A University of Texas regent has responded to a House committee considering his impeachment by alleging that lawmakers unduly influenced student admissions in at least two cases and that school officials misrepresented donations, according to an attorney's letter released Friday.

The formal response from Wallace Hall's attorney said Hall was just doing his job in questioning activities at the University of Texas at Austin and called on lawmakers to conduct a thorough investigation. Hall has made repeated requests for a large number of university records, which some lawmakers have called a witch hunt to justify removing UT Austin President Bill Powers, a political enemy of Gov. Rick Perry. Hall was appointed by Perry.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus asked the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to look into Hall and what critics call his attempt to micromanage the university.

"Regent Hall looks forward to the opportunity to tell this committee exactly what he was looking for, what he found and what he believes are the next steps on such topics as have animated members of the Legislature," the letter from attorney Stephen Ryan said. "He will stop only when the University of Texas System ... fully shares this committee's expressed commitment to transparency to all Texans."

The letter said Hall has found evidence that one House member and one senator improperly influenced university officials to accept two students at the UT system's flagship campus. He said the university also improperly reported non-cash gifts and failed to make information overall available to regents or the public as required by law.

Additionally, he expressed concern about salary enhancements for law school faculty, an issue that led to the UT law school dean's resignation.

There was no immediate way to independently verify Hall's allegations.

Gary Susswein, a spokesman for the University of Texas at Austin, denied any wrongdoing by campus officials.

"We're proud of our admissions policy and are happy to talk to the legislative committee about applicant recommendations we receive from lawmakers and other state officials, including regents," he said. "There was a disagreement over an accounting procedure and we've complied with the regent's request to count these contributions differently."

In June, powerful Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, asked lawmakers to investigate Hall, complaining that he was acting on behalf of Perry to force Powers out of office in order to radically change how UT operates.

Perry has called on the university's leadership to adopt wholesale changes proposed by a conservative think-tank, which officials say would cripple the campus and hurt its academic reputation.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, grilled Perry's latest additions to the UT Board of Regents during their confirmation hearings earlier this year about their role as overseers of the system and insisted they not try to directly manage the campuses, where educators enjoy some autonomy.

Hall also attracted criticism for failing to disclose his involvement in several corporate lawsuits when he filled out a questionnaire prior to his Senate confirmation. Hall has since updated his disclosure forms.