Kneecapping Reform in Texas

The fate of embattled University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall (appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in February 2011) now rests in the hands of the same partisan hacks in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office who railroaded former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on trumped-up “money laundering” charges in 2010 before the bogus conviction was ultimately thrown out on appeal several years later. On April 11, a state legislative committee charged with investigating whether grounds exist to impeach Hall “referred” to the Austin-based prosecutors a 174-page “investigative report” (really a one-sided advocacy brief)  prepared by the committee’s supposedly-neutral outside counsel, Rusty Hardin, to determine whether Hall should face criminal charges by the district attorney’s notoriously overzealous Public Integrity Unit. A spokesman for the D.A. indicated that it would take “about a week” to determine whether prosecutors would move forward on a case against Hall. When DeLay’s baseless conviction was reversed last fall, the Wall Street Journal opined that his prosecution was “an attempt by a rogue prosecutor to ruin an unsympathetic political figure.”  Some things never change.  DeLay’s tormentor, Ronnie Earle, has been succeeded as district attorney by convicted drunk driver Rosemary Lehmberg, but the partisan agenda -- and the goal of personal ruination for political enemies -- continues.

Hall’s critics rely on the public accepting the maxim “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and have gone to extraordinary lengths to create smoke, suggesting (with the obliging cooperation of Texas’ uniformly anti-Perry press corps) that Hall abused his position as regent to conduct an unwarranted and vindictive “witch hunt” against UT Austin President Bill Powers. Of course, fire does not always accompany smoke, and in combat soldiers sometimes use smokescreens for tactical reasons -- to conceal or draw attention away from clandestine activity.  Over the past year, a lot of smoke has been blown, to conceal a lot of clandestine activity -- favoritism, preferential treatment, and cronyism at UT.The long-prevailing status quo in Austin has been for UT administrators to do favors for legislators in exchange for granting UT’s appropriations requests. Similar logrolling existed between UT and its influential alumni and donors, leading to scandals such as off-the-books “forgivable loans” funded by donors to the UT law school foundation and secretly doled out to selected law faculty to supplement their salaries, which led to the dismissal of UT law school dean Larry Sager (Powers’ successor) in 2011. 

Perry’s reform-minded UT board of regents threatened this status quo a few years ago when they stepped out of the conventional “rubber stamp” role and started scrutinizing Powers’ performance, challenging the need for large tuition increases, and exercising oversight generally. In other words, to the chagrin of Powers, the legislature, and the powerful alumni network, the board of regents was actually engaging in governance, and the agents of the status quo were not pleased. Hall’s travails began in earnest when he started asking questions about legislators obtaining preferential admission to UT’s law school for their unqualified children. Call it affirmative action for dumb kids of powerful people. This infuriated legislators (most of whom bleed Burnt Orange) who had come to regard insider access to favors dispensed by Powers as an essential perquisite of their otherwise austere position as part-time officeholders who meet every other year. And of course, the legislators who reacted with the greatest fury were those such as state Rep. Jim Pitts who were caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Pitts, a powerful legislator who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, and who authored the impeachment resolution against Hall, subsequently announced that he was retiring after National Review correspondent Kevin Williamson reported that Pitts had pulled strings to get his unqualified (and previously-rejected) son admitted to UT law school.

Tensions escalated sharply in 2013 when the board of regents rejected an internal whitewash of Powers’ role in the UT law school foundation “forgivable loan” scandal and tried to hire an outside firm to investigate the matter. Legislators publicly denounced the board of regents, beginning the mantra (repeated incessantly by pro-Powers reporters) that the regents were on a “witch hunt” against Powers and “micromanaging” the university. The legislature went so far as to enact a law to hamstring the board of regents, which Perry vetoed. The legislature’s push back against the UT board of regents (and Hall in particular) gained momentum when Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, announced that he would not seek reelection in 2014. Hall tenaciously persisted with his oversight by requesting voluminous documents from UT Austin pursuant to the state’s open records act. Even though Hall mainly sought to review records previously requested by others (typically journalists), UT Austin excoriated him for the “burden” and “expense” of compliance. Hall refused to back down.

When a pitcher is trying to intimidate a batter who is crowding the plate, if a brush back pitch fails, the next step is a bean ball.  In June 2013, House Speaker Joe Straus, who was elected and retains control only with Democratic support, referred Pitts’ risible impeachment resolution to a hand-picked legislative committee to investigate whether Hall’s actions warranted impeachment, even though in Texas’s entire history, no volunteer appointee has ever been impeached, and only two elected officials have been (the last time was 40 years ago), and only then for committing crimes such as bribery or tax fraud. No matter. At great expense, the committee hired Hardin to indict the proverbial ham sandwich, and with a team of five lawyers and an unlimited budget, Hardin oversaw a farcical show trial (at which Hall was denied the right of cross-examination) and produced a report long on invective but short on credible allegations of wrongdoing. For example, Hardin’s report condemns Hall for “publicly opposing” UT Austin’s attempt to include $215 million in fundraising totals for donated software licenses, in violation of the relevant accounting rules. Imagine, a regent being accused of misconduct for insisting on compliance with external accounting guidelines! 

In short, Hardin’s tendentious report is nothing but smoke, calculated to obscure the underlying misconduct. The “referral” of the report to the Travis County prosecutors is meant to bully, embarrass, and punish Wallace Hall for challenging the status quo.  (Hall has had to engage lawyers at his own considerable expense, to defend his actions in a volunteer capacity for which no one in Texas’s history has ever been impeached.) The persecution of Hall has succeeded on one important front: Hall’s former allies on the board of regents have become silent and passive -- intimidated into submission. The newly-elected chair, Paul Foster, has promised to be more conciliatory to the legislature.

Predictably, the spectacle of Hardin’s report, however flimsy its findings, has led to a chorus of editorials calling for Hall to resign. The forces behind the status quo realize that men of accomplishment and principle tend to value their reputations above all else, and by trying to ruin Hall’s reputation they warn other would-be reformers: This could be you.

Is this just political theater, or is the threat to Hall of criminal prosecution and/or  impeachment by the Texas Senate genuine?  Even in ultra-liberal Austin, Texas, Hardin’s overwrought allegations of wrongdoing do not withstand serious scrutiny. The legislature should be ashamed for orchestrating this despicable smear campaign (and wasting taxpayers funds in the process), and the craven journalists (accomplices to the travesty) are equally culpable for ignoring the real story. The ultimate reckoning will come at election time, and Texas voters will decide who to blame.

If you experience technical problems, please write to