Transparency committee to question UT System officials

Transparency committee to question UT System officials
Bob Daemmrich
News
Wednesday, July 16, 2014 - 8:59am

 

 

The week after University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers announced he would step down next year, high-ranking UT System officials are expected to appear before the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations on Wednesday.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster and Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Pedro Reyes have been invited to testify, and system officials indicated that all three would be available to answer committee members' questions.

The committee has spent more than a year investigating Wallace Hall, a member of the system's board of regents, who has been accused of abusing his power while investigating the UT-Austin administration. Hall has denied any wrongdoing and said he was merely fulfilling the oversight responsibilities of his position.

In May, on a vote of 7-1, the committee approved a motion stating that grounds to impeach Hall exist. The members are in the process of drafting articles of impeachment. They are expected to spend much of Wednesday's committee meeting discussing the articles behind closed doors.

State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, the co-chairman of the committee, said he did not expect a vote on the articles at Wednesday's meeting, though he noted that could change if members decided to proceed.

But first they plan to hear from the system leaders about the recent drama involving Powers.

On July 2, Cigarroa asked Powers to resign or face termination at a July 10 board meeting. When the news broke on July 4, committee co-chairwoman Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said she was disappointed because the committee had twice instructed the system not to take any "adverse employment action" against witnesses related to their investigation, including Powers.

That weekend, Alvarado and co-chairman Dan Flynn, R-Van, issued a third reminder of their instructions.

Ultimately, Powers issued a resignation plan, which Cigarroa accepted, that allows Powers to exit in June 2015.

But Alvarado said she still has questions about why the committee's directive was not heeded. "At some point, that was either ignored or somebody forgot about it," she said Tuesday. "I, for one, am curious as to the thought process there."

At the July 10 board meeting, Foster said, "I do not feel it is appropriate for the Legislature to try to influence personnel actions at one of our institutions." However, after the meeting, he told the committee that he was not referring to how the committee proceeds on the impeachment matter.

In addition to "unanswered questions" about recent events, Alvarado said committee members wanted to discuss other issues with the system leaders, including why it has "been, at times, a little strenuous getting information from the system."

"We’re also going to keep focus on the subject of the investigation, which is Wallace Hall," she said.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, a committee member, said the recent events at the system did not affect his take on how the committee should handle the regent.

"I think we’re still looking into the actions of a regent," he said. "The committee has already said that we believe the grounds for impeachment do exist. We are at the juncture of articulating what those impeachable grounds are."

To the extent Hall has had any relationship with the committee, it has been a testy one. He has refused to appear before them without a subpoena, and though the committee issued several to other witnesses, the panel has refused to do so for the subject of its investigation. Hall also never took the committee up on its invitation to recommend witnesses.

Hall has threatened to sue one of the committee members for defamation, and has alleged that some lawmakers have undue influence on the admissions process at UT-Austin. An external investigation commissioned by Cigarroa is set to examine the process.

If the transparency committee agrees approves articles of impeachment against Hall, those would be referred to the full House for consideration. If a majority of state representatives affirm them and impeach Hall, then the Senate convenes as a court to consider the matter.

But while Flynn doesn't expect to move any articles out of committee on Wednesday, he indicated a desire for the committee to conclude its investigation, which he described as "fair and thorough," in the relatively near future.

"I truly want to be sure this is all completed before the end of the year," he said. "It has gone on longer than I had anticipated, but it has been more involved than a lot of people anticipated."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/07/16/transparency-committee-question-ut-system-official/.

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