Jim Pitts

Editor’s note: This week, the Texas House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations has heard public testimony concerning UT System Regent Wallace Hall’s conduct vis-a-vis UT-Austin. Beginning in the fall of 2012, Hall overwhelmed UT officials with open records requests for over 120,000 documents, leading many at UT and in the state legislature to allege that he was on a “witch hunt,” with the goal of creating sufficient grounds for the dismissal of UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. The Committee will attempt to determine whether, as his opponents have argued, Hall should be impeached and removed from office. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the Committee heard from several witnesses, including lawyers for Hall and the UT System, Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie — one of Hall’s most prominent critics — and former UT System General Counsel Barry Burgdorf, who resigned in 2013 after submitting a report on unfairly favorable loans granted to UT law school faculty. Burgdorf claims he was encouraged to leave after several regents, Hall foremost among them, wanted his report to lay more blame at Powers’ feet. What follows are some of the hearings’ highlights.

“It’s the first real hearing, but we don’t have a clue what’s going on ... It’s kind of like they’re throwing an impeachment, but we’re not really invited.”

-Allan Van Fleet, lawyer for UT regent Wallace Hall on Monday

“It will be a step toward public disclosure as to what happened and description from live witnesses, as opposed to people announcing their own side of the issue ... The committee’s name is ‘transparency,’ and I think the public will get a chance to look and see what happened and judge for themselves, as will the committee.”

-Committee special counsel Rusty Hardin

“In my opinion Mr. Hall has gone on a fishing expedition in hopes of finding something, anything with which he can use to oust President Powers. If he was truly trying to measure compliance, why would he only target one institution out of the fifteen in the University of Texas System?”

-Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, on Tuesday

“Are regents above the law? Transparency in government does not trump the privacy of those involved.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“We do not have to show Mr. Hall broke the law, we only have to show misconduct and abuse of power.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“I do believe that there is enough evidence to show that Mr. Hall should not be allowed to continue in his current capacity as a regent.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“The chancellor [Francisco Cigarroa] met with me and told me that Regent Hall was unhappy with me and the regents aligned with him were unhappy, they were going to make my life difficult.”

-Former UT System general counsel Barry Burgdorf on Wednesday 

UT System Regent Wallace Hall

On Tuesday, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, confirmed to The Texas Tribune that he wrote a letter of recommendation to the University of Texas School of Law on behalf of his son, who was later admitted to the school. The possibilities for an abuse of power in this scenario are obvious, but the answers as to why controversies such as this have dominated conversations about higher education in Texas for the past several months are not. 

Pitts issued his statement Tuesday in response to allegations made by Regent Wallace Hall about state officials influencing the admissions process at both UT-Austin and the School of Law. Hall claims he discovered these abuses of power through documents unearthed in an open records request. 

Hall, of course, is the UT System regent now infamous for being investigated by the House Select Committee for Transparency for possible impeachment.

It’s not quite clear what Hall has done to deserve the threat of impeachment — only two state officials, both of whom were elected, have been impeached in Texas history, and both were impeached for clear criminal activity. There’s no indication yet that Hall has committed a crime. 

It is well known that Hall is a real pest when it comes to plaguing the University with burdensome open records requests. Previous records requests by Hall to UT have been so expansive in scope that they’ve necessitated the hiring of additional staffers in the president’s office just to process them. 

But back to the recommendation letter: Pitts denies having exerted any undue influence on the admissions process at the School of Law, and at present (Pitts hasn’t released the letter itself), there’s no proof that his having provided a recommendation letter for his son is anything worse than misguided and tacky, despite Hall’s allegations. 

“This is nothing more than a pathetic, cowardly attempt by Mr. Hall’s allies — and possibly Mr. Hall himself — to distract from important questions about whether our flagship University System is being run appropriately,” Pitts said to the National Review of the situation. 

Incidentally, Pitts recently announced he is retiring, which he says has nothing to do with Hall’s allegations. He did, however, tell The Texas Tribune that he was tempted to run for re-election because he would “really like to stay and fight this Wallace Hall thing.” 

It’s hard to even begin unraveling the complicated politics that lead us to spend precious time making fights out of people instead of policy issues. But we are sure of one thing: At the height of the regents controversy in 2011, the conversation at least had something to do with important changes to higher education policy. Now, what’s left of the battle seems just as ridiculous as the email Gov. Rick Perry sent to several regents earlier this year that encouraged them to stand strong against “peacocks and charlatans.” 

In other words, Pitts’ influence over his son’s admission to UT's law school — or lack thereof — isn’t worth discussing on a statewide stage, especially in a state with such large higher education challenges. 

Is using your political position to exert undue influence on the admissions process wrong? Absolutely. But is a case of unconfirmed preferential treatment for a single applicant to the School of Law worth debating for two months at the highest level of university system governance? Not for a second. 

The UT System had several victories this legislative session (the establishment of the new Rio Grande Valley university and medical school, for one) as well as painful defeats (the failure of tuition revenue bonds, used to fund campus construction projects). And yet, the conversation seems stuck in the gear of petty political skirmishes. It’s far past time for us to all grow up and move on.

UT regent chairman defends Wallace Hall in letter to Jim Pitts

As the House Transparency Committee took a step closer to possibly impeaching UT System Regent Wallace Hall yesterday, board Chairman Gene Powell wrote a letter to Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, in defense of Hall’s actions.

In a recent opinion piece in the Austin American-Statesman, Pitts criticized Hall’s large open records requests for information from UT-Austin. Pitts also filed a resolution in the House to impeach Hall last month. In the letter obtained by Texas Monthly, Powell defends Hall’s actions.

“Clearly, Regent Hall’s activities are misunderstood and I fear may have been intentionally mischaracterized to you,” Powell said in the letter.

Powell states that Hall, as with any member of the public, has the right to view the documents he requested under the Texas Public Information Act. Hall did not seek information protected by FERPA or HIPAA. According to Powell, Hall has used the information to improve the UT System and UT-Austin.

“Regent Hall’s reviews of records have resulted in suggestions for process improvement and better governance at the U.T. System and at U.T. institutions,” Powell wrote. “He has provided observations about U.T. System and institutional inefficiencies and compliance concerns to Chancellor Cigarroa and to me.”

Powell added that Hall had not shared confidential information to individuals outside of the UT System.

The House Transparency Committee will continue to investigate Hall and plans on holding its next public hearing near the end of August. The committee has stated that it plans to use its subpoena power going forward in its investigation.

Follow Jacob Kerr on Twitter @jacobrkerr.

Pitts files impeachment resolution on regent Wallace Hall

Update: The resolution on the possible impeachment of Wallace Hall is now available online.

The resolution says that Hall "may have obtained that office through misrepresentation of material facts regarding his experience and qualifications in a manner that violates the penal laws of this state, including Section 37.10, Penal Code, and casts doubt on his fitness to hold public office and ability to carry out the responsibilities of that office with the integrity expected of a person holding a position of public trust in this state."

If the resolution passes, a special impeachment committee will be formed. The committee will then determine to file impeachment articles against Hall. The articles of impeachment will then go to the House, before being considered in the Senate. Hall could be limited in his abilities to serve as a regent once impeachment proceedings are underway.

Original story:

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has filed a resolution to begin the impeachment process on UT System Regent Wallace Hall Jr.

The resolution's text is not online yet, but the bill's caption says the impeachment is "for certain misconduct."

The resolution comes after months of conflict between the UT System and the Texas Legislature. The Legislature made several attempts to limit the powers of the UT System Board of Regents and other higher education boards across Texas. Some of them, including SB15, failed. Others, such as several amendments to the State's budget bill, did pass successfully.

Hall has filed many open records requests against UT-Austin, and Pitts has, in return, accused Hall and other regents for engaging in a "witch hunt" against UT President William Powers Jr.

Pitts aiming to impeach UT System regent

Multiple news outlets have reported that House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, is currently working to get the necessary signatures to impeach a UT regent.

The Texas Tribune and the Dallas Morning News both reported that Regent Wallace Hall is the target of Pitts' impeachment proposal. Lawmakers have been frustrated by Hall and the UT System for repeated Open Records Request filings targeted at UT President William Powers Jr. Most recently, Hall requested many documents from Powers' office, including "post-it" notes.

In order to begin the impeachment process, Pitts will have to aquire 76 signatures from the House's representatives. Following that, the Senate must convene and get two-thirds of a vote to impeach the regent.  

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry pauses during a news conference in North Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, where he announced he is suspending his campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich. His son Griffin is at left.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Updated at 7:30 p.m.

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed part of a bill Friday that would have provided $1.5 million in additional funding for the UT Center for Mexican-American Studies. 

HB 1025, by Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, would have restored some money to the department after massive cuts to its budget during the 2011 legislative session. Multiple higher education institutions across the state would have also received additional money for various programs under the bill. 

“The university did not request this special item in its Legislative Appropriations Request for FY 2014-15,” said Perry in a statement as justification for the veto. “If the Department of Mexican-American Studies is a priority, the university can use its $2.2 million appropriation for Institutional Enhancement.”

Perry said he also vetoed items in HB 1025 to counter a rise in "non-formula" funding at higher education instititions. 

"This is not the best use of hard-earned tax dollars," Perry said. "Because of the growth in special item funding, there is less state money to teach college students, which contributes to rising tuition."

Mexican-American Studies graduate student Jaime Puente said the veto would stunt the growth of the center, which he said had been planning to become a full department with the help of additional funding. 

“Its terrible,” Puente said. “It’s part and parcel of what I think is a concerted effort by Rick Perry to attack the University of Texas. If the center can't fund it's graduate students, it will definitely affect recruitment."

University spokesman Gary Susswein said the University is still reviewing the impact of the vetoes and is not able to issue a statement.

The Texas House of Representatives’ chief budget writer said Wednesday he intends to keep amendments to the proposed state budget limiting the spending power of the UT System Board of Regents and UT System administration. 

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairs the House Appropriations Committee and attached the amendments to the Senate’s budget bill in response to the board’s March 20 decision to conduct an external investigation of the UT Law School Foundation and UT School of Law. 

Lawmakers interpreted the investigation as a political move intended to oust University President William Powers Jr. and advised the board to allow the Texas Attorney General’s Office to conduct another investigation in order to avoid spending additional tax dollars.

Regents have since decided to follow that advice, but Pitts said he would keep the amendments while the budget conference committee meets.

“My fear is, if we take that out, that once we leave here, the board will continue acting the way did prior to the session,” Pitts said. “It’s really my intention to keep a watchful eye on the UT Board of Regents.”

One of Pitts’ amendments would allocate the $23.9 million originally intended to fund the UT System Administration during the 2014-15 biennium to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Doing such would require the coordinating board to transfer those funds to the System with permission from the Texas Legislative Budget Board and the governor’s office. 

The System could not use those funds to investigate its individual institutions or the administration of those institutions, or to request records from those bodies.

Under another amendment, the administration would not receive its share of the Available University Fund, a state endowment that funds institutions within the UT and A&M University systems.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the System intends to continue discussions with Pitts in the hope that “a positive resolution can be reached.”

“However, were the amendments to remain in the bill, there is no doubt that the impact would be significant,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “Specific details would have to be determined if we come to that point.”

In addition to the amendments, legislators have sought to realign the board with what they consider the board’s proper governance role.

The Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency was relaunched to investigate the ongoing conflict between the board and UT-Austin, but has not met since an organizational meeting in March.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, co-chairs the committee with state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. 

Branch said committee members have been reviewing information they requested from the System. He said the committee may schedule a meeting within the next few weeks, but could continue its work while the legislature is not in session.

Lawmakers have also sought to limit regents through legislation.

A bill filed by Seliger, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, would limit regents from “interfering” in the daily operations of universities under their purview. It would also prohibit regents who are appointed when the legislature is not in session from voting until regents have appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee. Gov. Rick Perry has appointed all sitting regents.

The House Higher Education Committee left the bill pending Wednesday. The Senate approved the bill 29-2.

Branch said he is unsure if Perry will sign the bill or if the House will pass it.

Branch said the bill would help quell conflicts between boards and university administrations statewide, although the bill was filed in response to controversy at the UT System.

“To me, while an incident often brings into focus what the statutory and constitutional and regental rules are, which is what this has done, we’re trying to step back and think broadly and make sure we’re doing something that’s good for all of Texas higher education going forward,” Branch said.

Members of a joint legislative committee announced Tuesday that they have requested information from the UT System Board of Regents necessary to investigate allegations that the board is “micromanaging” administrative decisions at UT.

Speaking at the first meeting of the relaunched Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, committee co-chair Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said he wishes to maintain a positive image of the state’s higher education institutions by understanding how university systems govern those institutions and if the governance structure needs to change.

“It would be my hope that the point here is to not create any harm to any particular system, certainly not to our state, and see if we can calmly and deliberately improve the situation at this one particular system and by application improve governance at all of our systems,” Branch said.

The information requests, addressed to Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell, seek a variety of communications and records between regents, System employees and University employees since Jan. 1, 2012, primarily communications sent “at the direction of a regent.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus relaunched the joint committee last month after regents intensely questioned UT President William Powers Jr. over a number of topics at a Feb. 13 board meeting.

The week after the board meeting, the Texas Legislature passed three resolutions defending and honoring Powers, culminating in a ceremony on the Senate floor. During an emotional testimony, Dewhurst decried the regents for “micromanaging” Powers.

Powell released a statement later that week defending the regents and saying that Dewhurst’s allegations “surely had to be the result of misinformation and were either incorrect or inaccurate.”

Two weeks ago, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System, emailed Powers instructing him to refrain from deleting emails in or accessed by the Office of the President over the course of the pending audit review of the UT Law School Foundation. Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, to resign as dean in December 2011 after it was revealed Sager obtained $500,000 in forgivable personal loans from the UT Law School Foundation. Sager still holds a faculty position in the Law School.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said Tuesday that regents are engaging in an effort to oust Powers that is distracting from the mission to administrate UT.

“I think there’s a witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt to try to remove one of our best presidents in the state of Texas, of our universities,” Pitts said. “And, I hope that we’ll be able to end these witch hunts and put this to bed so that the president of a tier-one university can govern that university and not have interference from the Board of Regents.”

Committee co-chair Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said constant controversy hinders higher education institutions’ missions to achieve excellence, which the committee aims to address.

Last month, Seliger filed a bill that would limit regents’ authority over the individual institutions they govern. It would amend state law to say that all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards of those university systems fall under the authority of the individual institutions of that system.

Seliger, who also chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said his committee will examine the bill within the next two weeks.

“There’s no point in waiting. We want to get it moving,” Seliger said.