AUSTIN, Texas — Earlier this week, the Texas House of Representatives Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations voted 6-1 to issue a “motion of admonishment and censure” against Wallace J. Hall, Jr., a University of Texas Regent. Hall stands accused of violating student privacy rights, overburdening the university with excessive records requests, and other charges of damaging the university. Strongly denying these allegations, Hall granted an exclusive interview to Breitbart Texas last night (Hall spoke on his own individual behalf and not on behalf of the University of Texas). Hall and other Texas higher education watchdogs shared with us their concerns about the potential chilling effect on future efforts to ensure transparency in government and the Texas higher education system.
Appointed to the UT Board of Regents by Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2011, Hall set off a firestorm of controversy after he began asking questions about a forgivable loan program for UT law professors and a pattern of unqualified applicants connected to legislators being granted admission to the law school. Investigations by Watchdog Texas reporter Jon Cassidy revealed dozens of students admitted to UT Law whose qualifications were not just slightly below UT’s normal admissions standards, but were in fact far below expectations for even the lowest-ranked law schools in the US.
Despite the mounting evidence of political favoritism in its admissions practices, the response from UT President Bill Powers was not to address the problems, but to attack Hall, and some of the legislators implicated in the influence peddling joined in. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts initiated efforts to impeach Hall, only to later resign his legislative seat after it was revealed that Pitts himself had pulled strings to get his son into the law school. Powers finally offered his own resignation last month, effective June 2015, after an ultimatum from UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. Hall approved of Powers’ resignation as a “good first step” to restoring integrity to the university, but questioned the lengthy exit plan. “I don’t understand how, said Hall, “in good conscience, the board can leave someone in place as president of one of our universities when he’s not ‘trusted’–that’s the word [Chancellor Cigarroa] used in his letter, that he’s not trusted.”
With an eerie similarity to the Texas Ethics Commission’s lax compliance with procedure rules during their investigation of Michael Quinn Sullivan, the Transparency Committee issued their censure motion after a closed door meeting, without any apparent qualifying exception to Texas’ Open Meetings Act. Just as troubling, the Transparency Committee repeatedly ignored exculpatory evidence and restricted Hall’s ability to defend himself. As previously reported by Breitbart Texas, UT officials provided evidence in support of Hall that the Transparency Committee ignored, including a letter from Cigarroa expressly stating that Hall’s records request was much more limited than the Committee was claiming and that Hall had not violated any student privacy rights. Likewise, UT’s appointed independent counsel, Phillip Hilder, sent a letter stating that he could find “no credible evidence of a violation of [the law] or of any other state or federal law” by Hall.
Notably, both the Chair Paul Foster and Vice Chair Gene Powell of the UT Board of Regents issued public statements supporting Hall and explicitly stating that he had violated no state or federal laws or university rules or procedures. Powell even went so far as to criticize the “numerous incorrect, misleading and disingenuous statements” contained in the Transparency Committee’s censure motion, stating his disappointment that the Committee “failed the public by not being more accurate and forthright.”
This inability to properly present evidence in his own defense is one of Hall’s greatest frustrations with this entire process. Speaking exclusively to Breitbart Texas, Hall confirmed that he had not been allowed to directly call his own witnesses or enter evidence into the record. Instead, the Transparency Committee made a sham offer for Hall and other interested parties to “suggest” witnesses for them to question or to turn over evidence for them to enter. After seeing how the Transparency Committee was only allowing witnesses to be questioned on topics that were unfavorable to Hall, and refusing to ask questions that supported his side, Hall declined to allow himself to be questioned in this slanted way–especially when he was told that he would not be permitted to have an attorney represent him during the questioning. Hall was also denied the chance to cross-examine any of the Committee’s witnesses.
Hall’s opponents who have managed to remain in office continued working to discredit him through an investigation run by the Transparency Committee, with this week’s censure motion their latest effort. Contrary to many media reports on the Committee’s motion, and their own attempts to inflate their own importance, this censure motion does not actually have any real legal effect. Legislative committees frequently cast votes, draft reports, make recommendations, and take other actions that are meaningless unless and until the full legislature takes up the issue. Committee members have, however, continued to threaten that impeachment is still on the table.
Hall’s response to the censure motion was that it was “absurd and ridiculous,” and would result in “zero change” to his duties or status as regent. Hall also drew a comparison to the TEC’s actions against Michael Quinn Sullivan, viewing it as part of a larger pattern of intimidation against government watchdogs, “This was nothing but an attempt to smear me, to intimidate me and damage my reputation,” he said, noting Committee member Representative Dan Flynn’s public comments that the censure would stay with Hall the rest of his life. “This is much bigger than higher ed, this is about abuse of power.”
Breitbart Texas interviewed Ronald L. Trowbridge, PhD, who previously served as chief of staff for Supreme Court Justice Warren Berger and is now on the Board of Regents for Lone Star College (Trowbridge agreed to speak to us on his own behalf and does not speak for the college). Trowbridge has followed the story from the beginning, and harshly criticized the Transparency Committee for “wasting” over half a million dollars for an investigation that ended with no to show other than a “virtually worthless” and “toothless” censure motion. “[This committee] was an embarrassment,” he said. “They ought to get a gold star for being the Keystone Cops, it’s government at its saddest.”
Speaking exclusively to Breitbart Texas, Trowbridge said he viewed the Transparency Committee’s censure of Hall as “entirely predictable,” but did not believe they would follow through on their threat to impeach Hall, mainly because that would then allow Hall’s attorneys to depose under oath–for the first time– the legislators who pulled strings to get their friends and relatives admitted into UT without meeting the expected admissions standards. Regarding the committee’s failure to comply with the Open Meetings Act, he commented that “the chief irony of the transparency committee is that they don’t want to be transparent,” which they would be forced to be if they sought to take any other official action against Hall.
Hall also does not expect to face formal impeachment proceedings. Noting that there would be new leadership in the Senate, with Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick the presumptive head of the Senate after this fall’s elections, Hall believes he would get a fair hearing in the Senate, and the threat of legislators being questioned under oath and the fact that the committee members would have to bring the articles of impeachment to the House floor and argue the points themselves, made it a much less appealing prospect for his opponents.
Other sources made similar comments as Hall’s, with several sharing on background to Breitbart Texas their expectations that any attempt to bring formal impeachment articles against Hall was likely to break down into a free-for-all among any legislators who wished to challenge or undermine Speaker Joe Straus’ position. Notably, Representative Scott Turner, who has declared he will run for Speaker against Straus, posted on his Facebook page a sharp critique of the committee. “Favoritism in state funded university admissions is unethical and corrupt, and any evidence of such practices should be investigated fully by a university regent, as it is their job to oversee the university system,” wrote Turner. “In my opinion, Regent Hall was simply executing his duties and should be supported in his efforts, rather than be censured and submitted to continuing impeachment proceedings which have already cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Trowbridge had a similar reaction. “They had to save face, had to do something after spending all that taxpayer money,” said Trowbridge, noting that the Transparency Committee had paid their counsel Rusty Hardin almost six hundred thousand dollars so far. Trowbridge also pointed out another political angle to the Committee’s actions: fear of angering the powerful UT alumni network in an election year. “The UT alumni are a very loyal and powerful force. Politically, it would be unwise [for elected officials] to get them angry.” A censure motion threads the needle in that it appears to be taking action but is not serious enough to draw real attention or opposition.
Trowbridge has never met Hall but had high praise for the embattled regent as “a man of principle, honor, and integrity,” especially regarding Hall’s pledge to continue his investigation efforts. “I think he’s a hero,” said Trowbridge. “He should be given a commendation. It takes a lot of courage [and] he has taken a lot of heat. UT is a religion, and if you go after that, they’ll go after you.” His biggest concern was what the Committee might do to shut down future inquiries. “Government should not micromanage the universities period.”
Peggy Venable, Legislative and Policy Director for Americans for Prosperity Texas, similarly called the censure motion “extremely inappropriate.” Venable questioned why a university system that granted tenure so its professors could have academic freedom would not want free speech rights for its own regents in the exercise of their duties. “Wallace Hall’s ‘transgression,’ if you will, was asking too many questions about practices [at UT] that were at best unfair, and at worst, corrupt.” She characterized the Committee’s censure motion and threats of impeachment as intended to have “a chilling effect” on those who serve in accountability roles like a university regent. “That will not serve Texas well.”
Thomas Lindsey, PhD, Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, had similar thoughts as Venable. “This action against Wallace Hall sends a chilling message to current and prospective regents,” said Lindsey. “If you ask the tough questions, you will face possible impeachment and possible jail time, and have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of your own money on lawyers to defend your efforts to make Texas higher education more transparent and accountable for taxpayers.”
The Committee also drew criticism for their intention to create a new subcommittee to oversee activities of the regents of the state’s university systems. Besides the questionable propriety of a government agency seeking to oversee the private citizens, the regents, who are supposed to be overseeing and investigating another government agency, the universities, the legal authority for such a subcommittee is in doubt. Regents are a creature of the executive branch, appointed by the Governor of Texas. It is far from clear that the Legislature has the power to interfere in the day-to-day affairs of an executive branch function.
Despite the ongoing threats of impeachment and other investigations against him, Hall reaffirmed his commitment to investigate political favoritism and other improprieties at UT, noting that the Committee’s censure motion was the only action they could take when they lacked adequate evidence against him. “They can’t argue on the facts [because] I own the facts,” he said. “The rules that this committee established were reminiscent of a communist show trial.” Hall added, “They never appeared interested in the truth, or they would have subpoenaed me to testify, which I was willing to do,” characterizing again the threat of impeachment as a “very poor political threat.”
“I’m not beholden to anybody,” added Hall. “I don’t make any money [from being a regent], I have no financial interest, I’m a pure volunteer. I just hate corruption, hate it.” Hall also said that if he were driven by financial considerations, he would have accepted the request that he resign, as he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on legal fees to defend himself so far.
Hall expressed optimism and hope for the future of UT and his role as a regent. “I’m excited about our new chancellor,” said Hall. “This is a ‘cultural reset,’ a change of culture to not only strive for excellence but have a level of accountability that allows us to pursue our goals.”
“If you can change the culture, then you can accomplish great things.”
Sarah Elizabeth Rumpf is a political and communications consultant living in Austin. You can follow her on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.