University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall has declined an invitation to testify this week before the legislative committee that is conducting an investigation of his actions as a regent — an inquiry that could result in a recommendation that he be impeached.
The House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday. They have subpoenaed UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers to testify. They opted not to issue a subpoena for Hall, though they hoped to hear from him.
Committee members are attempting to determine whether Hall — who has been accused by some legislators of being on a "witch hunt" to oust Powers — overstepped his authority in conducting investigations into the system's flagship university. His requests for documents from UT-Austin have yielded more than 800,000 pages, according to university officials. Questions have also been raised about whether Hall mishandled private student information; the committee has asked its special counsel, Rusty Hardin, to review that matter and, if he deems it necessary, to refer it to the proper authorities.
On Dec. 10, the committee co-chairs — state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van — sent Hall an invitation to appear before the committee. They also requested that Hall provide the committee with the names of witnesses he would like to have testify.
On Monday, the co-chairs received a letter from Hall's attorney, Allan Van Fleet, declining both that invitation and an invitation from Hardin for Hall to be interviewed by the committee's staff.
Hall's attorneys have repeatedly requested that the regent be subpoenaed and have indicated that they have counseled him not to testify unless he is subpoenaed. Nearly every other witness the committee has heard from in hearings over the last two months has received a subpoena. State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has been a vocal critic of Hall's and filed a resolution during a special session calling for his impeachment, was an exception.
Since the committee has raised the specter of criminal investigation with regard to the handling of student information, Van Fleet reiterated his belief that "the only sound legal counsel is to caution Regent Hall against voluntary testimony."
The state's government code provides additional protection to subpoenaed witnesses, including the following: "If a person testifies or produces a document while claiming that the testimony or document may incriminate him, the person may not be indicted or prosecuted for any transaction, matter, or thing about which the person truthfully testified or produced evidence."
The committee previously issued a subpoena for Hall for an earlier date in December. But citing a scheduling conflict, they quickly withdrew it and declined to issue another one for the Dec. 19 hearing. Van Fleet indicated that this has caused "confusion" about the committee's intentions.
Van Fleet had also previously asked to be notified two weeks in advance if the committee would be compelling Hall to testify. When Van Fleet set a Dec. 5 deadline for such notice, Hardin rejected it, saying that Hall's team "doesn't get to pick the time and place."
In his most recent letter, Van Fleet wrote of the two-week notice, "We hope you will agree that this was a reasonable request, given that the Transparency Committee previously said it would provide two-weeks notice, that Regent Hall is the target of your investigation, and that the Committee has raised numerous issues about accountability processes at the UT System over which Regent Hall has no control, but must apparently be prepared to discuss."
In a joint statement, the committee co-chairs expressed disappointment at Hall's decision to decline their invitation. "In keeping with our pledge to provide a thorough and impartial process, our invitation to Regent Hall to testify still stands. We are eager to hear from him, and are prepared to acommodate his testimony."
Testimony from Hall sans subpoena remains unlikely.
In his letter, Van Fleet wrote that Hall has previously offered to share his views on "the challenges and opportunities faced by the UT System" with legislators, and though he has not been taken up on that, remains interested in doing so.
"He looks forward to opportunities to engage with all interested policy makers on these issues," Van Fleet wrote of Hall. "Such engagements, however, must be under conditions that encourage open discussion and provide reasonable protections for all participants against retribution for their views."
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/17/regent-hall-declines-invitation-testify-hearing/.