The UT Scandal and the Revenge of Dan Branch, Jim Pitts and Joe Straus

The UT Scandal and the Revenge of Dan Branch, Jim Pitts and Joe Straus

The situation at the University of Texas has been quite a S.N.A.F.U since Wallace Hall was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to the Board of Regents in 2011. The Dallas businessman’s quest to fulfill his fiduciary obligation to Texas taxpayers has raised the ire of Texas politicians, UT officials and supporters, and closely-associated organizations. The Regent now faces impeachment and possible criminal charges. Hall’s offense? — The pursuit of transparency and accountability and the exposure of preferential treatment. Governor Perry has called the investigation “extraordinary political theater.”    

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts filed a resolution in June of 2013 to impeach University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall.  Although it never came to a vote, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations voted 7-1 last week that there were grounds for impeachment. Although two elected officials have been impeached in Texas, Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917, and a district court judge in 1975, this is the first time a legislative committee has voted on impeachment of a gubernatorial appointee. A vote in favor of impeachment by the House Select Committee would set the wheels in progress to have Hall removed from office. The issue would then go before the Texas House. The House would vote on whether or not to send the issue to the Senate for a trial and a vote on his removal.  

Republican Rep. Charles Perry from Lubbock was the only committee member to vote against the measure. The representative said he had not heard all sides of the matter. Hall was given the opportunity to testify but he declined because the Committee refused to issue a subpoena that offered him legal protection.  

Co-Chair, Republican Rep. Dan Flynn wrote committee members recently and said that he did not believe that Hall deserved impeachment. Flynn ended up voting with the majority. So did Democrat Rep. Eric Johnson. Johnson had said that the Committee should file a final report and see whether there would be charges and an indictment. 

Democrat Rep. Carol Alvarado, Co-Chair, said that “[t]he outcome of today’s vote will be setting a standard on appointee conduct for years to come.” Although Committee members asked Hall to resign rather than face impeachment, both Hall and his lawyer, Allan Van Fleet, said he would stay on the job.      

Special Counsel for the Committee, Rusty Hardin, issued a report in March that concluded that there was legally and factually sufficient evidence to support impeachment. Hardin reported that Hall made unreasonably voluminous requests for documents; used confidential information; acted against the university’s fundraising interests, and retaliated against and engaged in abusive conduct toward the president and other university officials. The Committee’s Co-Chairs forwarded Hardin’s report to the Travis County District Attorney’s office. Hall is now under criminal investigation by the Public Integrity Unit (now called the “Special Prosecution Division”).

In mid-May, Allan Van Fleet sent Flynn and Alvarado a letter accusing the Committee of withholding exonerating evidence from prosecutors and the public, i.e., a secret audiotape made in August of 2013 of a Regent’s discussion with Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. Van Fleet also accused them of leaking the investigative report to the media before he or Hall had a chance to see it.

The witch hunt began after Hall asked questions about the preferential admissions treatment given to friends and family of Texas lawmakers. Governor Perry and President Powers have clashed on the issues of tuition and graduation rates and teacher roles and research. Hall asked questions about university operations, tuition and graduation rates, and the role of teaching and research in university education. Hall also questioned the practice of law school professors receiving loans from a foundation fund not affiliated with the law school (“forgivable loan program“). The Regent has angered alumni, faculty, and others by criticizing UT President Bill Powers. It was House Rep. Jim Pitts who accused Hall of conducting a “witch hunt” against the President. The Regent has also angered university officials and staff with his aggressive pursuit of documents through the Texas Public Information Act.  

In June of 2013, the Texas Speaker of the House directed the House Select Committee to monitor those who have been appointed to public offices, including university regents. Speaker Straus ordered them to start investigating Hall. Straus said in a written statement that “[a]s 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.”  

Watchdog.org reported that Speaker Straus, and his fellow House members Reps. Dan Branch and Jim Pitts, wrote more letters to the UT President on behalf of applicants seeking to be admitted than anyone else discovered. The letters were discovered as a result of Regent Hall’s inquiry into preferential admissions treatment. This Watchdog group has also accused Straus of “mak[ing] it easier for government agencies to keep their records from the public.”  

Hall told Texas Monthly in April of 2013 that “Dan Branch has been a friend of mine for many years. He’s never asked me a question about this situation, and the next thing I know he’s asking his staff to investigate the rules of impeachment. I’m mystified by that, frankly.” Branch was serving as Co-Chairman of the Joint Committee of Higher Ed Governance, Excellence and Transparency.  

The Texas House Select Committee “initially intended to focus on three questions raised by Rep. Pitts: “(1) Did Hall fail to disclose material information on his regent application? (2) Did Hall reveal information about students that violated their privacy? And (3) Did Hall exceed his role as a regent by constantly requesting massive information from the University of Texas?”  

Later, the Committee sent the University Chancellor a letter and asked for a list of requests for information from regents. The Committee also asked for Board policy changes, including those being considered by Chairman Paul Foster that would tighten communications and email policies. The Committee asked for information on any pending investigation, including those into the President’s travel, and political influence in the admissions process, and whether any students’ private information had been shared.

Hall has been accused of “among other things, misrepresenting facts in his appointment application and abusing his office by making numerous unreasonably burdensome, wasteful, and intrusive requests for information.” He is accused of leaving out information in his application about civil lawsuits. Watchdog.org reports that there are 9,291 applications for appointments that are not complete. Hall wrote the Committee in August of 2013 that the lawsuit involved litigation and bankruptcies of Bluff Power Partners and ES Energy Solutions and could be found in public records.  The letter also said Hall was “disappointed to read comments in the press that the Committee may not allow Regent Hall to call or examine witnesses.”  

A University official testified before the House Select Committee in October of 2013 that Hall requested 800,000 pages of documents.  A February 2014 letter from University Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said that it was likely less than 100,000 pages. The Chancellor also wrote that “[d]uring testimony before the Select Committee, some early witnesses implied that the U.T. System has not protected the privacy rights of students, staff, and patients. This is simply not true.  To the extent student information may have been released inappropriately, the release was made by UT-Austin.”

The Committee also claimed that Hall illegally disclosed confidential student information in conversations with a lawyer. The university’s independent counsel, Philip Hilder, contended that this was not so. In January, Hilder wrote lawmakers and said that Hall’s possession of confidential student information “had a legitimate educational purpose,” and that he could find “no credible evidence of a violation of [the law] or of any other state or federal law.”  

Texas Monthly did an extensive interview with the embattled Hall in April of 2013. It set forth the controversy and the Regent’s response to all the issues, including his battle with the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. The Coalition was formed in 2011 to push-back at some of the Governor’s education reform efforts and includes some of the university’s top financial donors. Hall has been critical of the Coalition’s efforts saying that members have damaged the university and have had a “them against us” mentality.

Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote that the standard guiding these impeachment proceedings is whether there was “misconduct, malfeasance, misfeasance, abuse of office, or incompetency.” There is also an inquiry into whether impeachment would be warranted under the circumstances. The state standard is quite different from the one in the U.S. Constitution for removal of a president, i.e., for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The state standard is also more subjective. 

The UT System Rules and Regulations of the Board of Regents provides that Board members have “the power and authority to govern, operate, support, and maintain The University of Texas System to the Board of Regents.” These rules also provide that the Board has “wide discretion in exercising its power and authority.” These regulations make clear that university officials and regents are “to provide maximum transparency to the public and its representatives.” 

Hall said in a written statement that his intent has only been to protect the interests of students and university faculty and staff, and Texas taxpayers. “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 also wrote, “If the Transparency Committee desires transparency, it should not seek ways to interfere with investigations that would expose improper conduct at the University of Texas.”  

Governor Perry issued a press release saying that “Wallace Hall should be commended for his persistence–in the face of overwhelming opposition from bureaucrats–in trying to ensure the institutions of higher education under his purview are operating effectively, efficiently and within the law. Hall is doing exactly what every regent and every appointee in the State of Texas should be doing: asking tough questions, gathering facts and searching for the truth. Even the chairman of the Board of Regents has said Hall did not commit an impeachable offense or a crime. Texans should be outraged by his treatment, and deeply concerned it will have a chilling effect on those who are tasked with the oversight of state agencies and institutions that they are responsible for.”  

State Reps. Carol Alvarado and Dan Flynn wrote that the hearings have “highlighted some areas of the System’s operations that may need improvement.” The process of drawing articles of impeachment is predicted to take throughout the summer.  

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