In a symbolic vote Monday afternoon, the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, a committee headed by State Representative Dan Flynn (R–Van), chose to “Admonish” and “Censure” University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall for his efforts to uncover an admissions scandal at the University of Texas that implicated members of the legislature. The vote followed more than a year of efforts to impeach Hall that have cost taxpayers upward of half a million dollars. While members of the committee represented that they still could vote to issue articles of impeachment, the decision to issue an official reprimand is almost certainly an act in lieu of impeachment. The vote can best be seen as an effort by the committee members, who are condemned to own their previous accusations against Hall, to end the controversy in a way in which they can claim a victory, when further action towards impeachment would certainly end in defeat.
Commissioned to impeach Hall by House Speaker Joe Straus, the Select Committee’s efforts had become mired in controversy over the past several months. First, an audio recording was produced to the Committee which discredited a report prepared by the Committee’s own attorney, Rusty Hardin. Then the underlying controversies at the University of Texas became public knowledge – leading to the forced retirement of UT President Bill Powers. These controversies revealed that Regent Hall was a hero in the saga, not a villain, and that his efforts for transparency were fully justified. Investigations by the University of Texas System into systematic abuses of the admissions system by politicians and others continue.
The censure document produced by the Committee Monday, which was apparently written almost exclusively by State Representative Four Price (R–Amarillo), is filled with lies lifted from Hardin’s previously-discredited report. In just one example of the complete failure of Price and the Committee to use logic and reasoning (or possibly to read their own writing or the laws they allege to enforce), the admonition issued by the Committee quotes from Hardin’s report in condemning Hall, accusing him of “personally undermin[ing] ‘[the] institutional independence’ of UT Austin … in violation of the statutory obligations of a regent prescribed by the Education Code.” But the problem is that the relevant section of the Education Code, which the Committee printed verbatim in its document, requires no such thing.
The Education Code actually states:
“[E]ach governing board … is expected to preserve institutional independence and to defend its right to manage its own affairs through its chosen administrators and employees.”
Regents are required to maintain their own independence from outside influence, not to abstain from managing the institutions under their control. This provision in the code likely stems from a history of Texas’ only Governor to be impeached, James Ferguson, abusing his office by interfering with the Regents of the University of Texas when they refused to fire certain professors the Governor found objectionable. Indeed, as we have noted before, it is the members of the Select Committee who deserve impeachment for their actions in violation of the Education Code, not Regent Hall.
It is clear that Speaker Straus and his allies lack the political capital to force a vote on Hall’s impeachment. By sidestepping the matter and voting to censure Hall, they have been able to avoid having their record and motives questioned on the House floor or on the floor of the Senate. They have also helped protect Straus and other members of the House from being forced to take a vote on what every honest and informed observer is now acknowledging would be an absurd and unjust impeachment.
Wallace Hall won on Monday. But what’s more important is that Texans won. We cannot allow legislators to abuse their offices or attack those who attempt to expose corrupt behavior. The investigations must continue and those who are found to have abused the public trust must be held accountable and removed from office.