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Transparency Committee Looks to UT System to Take Action

After voting on Monday that grounds exist to impeach one of the regents of the University of Texas System, members of a legislative committee say they hope to see a proactive response from UT's board of regents, which meets this week.

After voting that there are grounds to impeach University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall, members of a legislative committee are making it clear that they are looking to the UT System’s board of regents to address the situation, possibly as soon as when it meets this week. Some members indicated that board action could reduce the need — to the extent that the committee feels there is one — to proceed with the impeachment process.

The House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, in a 7-1 vote Monday, approved a motion saying that there are reasons to impeach Hall, who has been accused of abusing his authority while investigating the University of Texas at Austin administration. The committee plans to meet again May 21 to discuss drafting articles of impeachment, which it could send to the full Texas House for consideration.

Members of the committee have said they think UT board’s actions have been lacking, and some said they hope to see a proactive response to the week’s developments when the board meets Wednesday and Thursday. While demands for action were many, specifics were few. But possibilities raised by the committee members included casting a vote of "no confidence" in Hall, pushing for Hall's resignation and tweaking the board's policies so that future regents cannot use investigative tactics similar to what Hall has done.

"We are doing what we can to help remedy this situation, but they have a responsibility as well," state Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat and the committee’s co-chair, said in reference to the UT System board. "They have all been aware of this behavior and, for whatever reason, have not done anything about it."

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said, "I would strongly urge and encourage the UT System to resolve this issue, working closely with the University of Texas, to come to some closure before this committee takes a step further."

A UT System spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter on Monday, but the board's agenda for its upcoming meeting does call for regents to discuss their governance structure.

According to the agenda for Thursday's meeting, "Chairman [Paul] Foster will make comments and lead a discussion regarding the role of the governing board and governing board members and best practices for Board operations, oversight, and engagement."

Foster may also recommend that certain unspecified actions be taken, including possible changes to the rules for regents, according to the agenda.

The transparency committee members did not specify which of Hall's actions that most agreed could warrant impeachment. Since he began conducting personal investigations into operations at the UT-Austin, Hall has been accused of allegedly abusing his authority by demanding access to a significant number of university records, allegedly mishandling private student information, and pressuring the committee's witnesses or their superiors in an allegedly inappropriate manner. 

The committee's special counsel, Rusty Hardin, counted these among possible grounds for impeachment in a report to the committee. The allegations relating to Hall's handling of private student information raised in Hardin's report were referred to the public integrity unit of the Travis County district attorney's office, where officials have opened an investigation.

Hall has denied any wrongdoing, saying he has only fulfilled his responsibilities as a regent to look into questionable actions by administrators.

In a statement following Monday's vote, Hall said, "When a Board encounters problems, coverups, and intransigence at a taxpayer-funded institution, is the proper response to hold those who are responsible accountable, or to impeach the board member?"

State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who was the lone opposing vote on Monday's motion, indicated that he did not believe the situation called for impeachment. But while he placed some of the blame for the state of things on the other side, he also conveyed some reservations about the regent's impact on the university. "I think that UT has lost a little bit of its swagger — I think self-imposed, and I think from Wallace Hall's actions," he said.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, issued his fourth formal request for Gov. Rick Perry — who Larson said "has some responsibility for a lot of this" — to request that Hall step down, though he noted that he had not received a response to his previous three requests. A spokeswoman for the governor said his views, which have been supportive of Hall, remain unchanged following Monday's vote.

Larson also offered some specific suggestions for the UT System. "I would love to see the board of regents have a 'no confidence' vote for Wallace Hall and send a message that he's not working within the team framework the board of regents has set up," he said.

Committee co-chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, said he and other members have been encouraged by the "take-charge attitude" of Foster, who took over as the chairman of the UT System board since the committee launched its investigation into Hall nearly one year ago.

According to the UT System board’s agenda, there will also be a closed-door discussion about the duties, roles and responsibilities of the chancellor, at the request of outgoing Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. 

In February, Cigarroa announced that he plans to step down this year to head up the pediatric transplant surgery unit at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

In a statement following the committee's vote on Monday, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who charged the committee with investigating Hall, noted that the subsequent search for a new chancellor amplifies the need to put this issue to rest.

"This Committee has taken its oversight responsibility very seriously, and its work has brought to light significant concerns about the University of Texas System and its Board of Regents," Straus said.

"As that work continues, I hope the board will take its own steps to address the trust that has been broken among regents and the harm that some regents have inflicted on the UT System. As regents search for a new chancellor, it is particularly important that they show a willingness to put these problems behind them and focus again on the core mission of UT institutions."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to the 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/05/13/transparency-committee-looks-ut-system-changes/.

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