Senate Bill Aims to Improve UT Oversight by Blinding Regents
he UT System Board of Regents, as envisioned by Senator Kel Seliger.
State Senator Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo, is pushing a measure that we might well dub the "No More Wallace Hall Bill." In a transparent attempt to shield Texas universities from basic public accountability, Seliger's meat-ax bill would do serious violence to basic institutional governance in all of Texas' institutions of public higher education.
It's kind of like throwing out the baby, mom, dad, the siblings and poor old grandma with the bathwater. You wind up with a very messy scene down below on the sidewalk.
Seliger's assault on accountability is made all the more reprehensible by the fact that it's aimed at a guy who was proved right by history. Looking back now on the whole Wallace Hall saga -- he's the University of Texas regent who started two years ago blowing the whistle on an array of corrupt practices there -- it seems obvious he knew what he was talking about.
Eventually the corruption at UT alleged by Hall, who is from Dallas, became the target of a full-blown investigation by a famous international private eye company. As we have reported here, the private eyes, many of them lawyers, confirmed almost every single allegation Hall had made with the exception of one they didn't look at.
Over the last year all of the top officers of the university involved in the matters raised by Hall have stepped down, been fired or announced their own retirement dates. Soon.
The most outrageous of the abuses uncovered by Hall -- because it made such a mockery of UT's own purported high standards -- involved a back-door admissions racket for the UT law school. The prime beneficiaries were powerful legislators in positions to do favors for the university, who were able to persuade the law school to accept some candidates whose admissions test scores wouldn't get them into truck driving school.
Hall himself never publicized information about individual students admitted through this backdoor, but an investigative reporter for an online news service figured out who they were. Jon Cassidy of Watchdog.org published information about them, including the fact that several, after graduating from what is supposed to be one of the nation's top law schools, couldn't pass the bar exam in multiple attempts.
Clearly that was a bitterly embarrassing moment for the legislative leadership, almost all of whom were involved -- a true bipartisan effort -- and none of whom would hope to live through it again. There are two ways they could have gone if they wanted to guard against a recurrence. You guess which one they have chosen, and your first choice doesn't count.
One choice: The Legislature could enact tough reforms to guarantee total transparency in the admissions process, including an injunction against legislators themselves ever even trying to get a kid shoehorned into UT based on the kid's connections rather than merit.
The other choice: The Legislature could stack the board of regents with its own co-conspirators and pass new laws making it harder for regents like Hall to find out what's going on.
It's a big Number Two all the way. Seliger is trying to peddle his Hall bill as an effort to bolster transparency -- a lame joke when you read the bill and understand the context.
At a hearing on it in Austin last week, State Representative Konni Burton, a Tarrant County Republican, spotted the trick and went right to it. Burton said she was troubled by a provision in the bill that says, "The governing board of an institution of higher education may not unreasonably or unduly interfere with the day-to-day operations of the institutions under its governance."
Why troubled? Sounds innocent enough. But Burton is on the Senate nominations committee, where she had just finished vetting two nominations put forward for the UT System Board of Regents by Governor Greg Abbott. The nominees, Austin businessman Steven Hicks and Houston trial lawyer David Beck, were central bad boys in the matters uncovered by Hall. Burton voted against their nominations because she said they had been enemies of transparency, not friends, when Hall was trying to get to the truth about UT.
People opposed to those two nominations had provided Burton with stacks of evidence against the pair. And in those pages was the very language she now found lurking in the depths of the Seliger No More Wallace Hall Bill.
She told the committee: "The reason that came out so much -- that it was so obvious to me when I was reading through this -- is because I just recently went through reams and reams of paperwork for another committee that I sit on for nominations, and actually I saw this very line in one of the pieces of paperwork that I read that actually uses this as a reason to not be transparent.
"It was actually this same language. And while this sounds good in this bill, this was just recently used for the direct opposite reason."
In fact the allegation of undue and unreasonable interference wound up being the sole hook on which top legislators were able to hang their hats last year in a bizarre attempt to shut Hall down with impeachment proceedings. Only two officials in Texas history have ever been removed from office through impeachment by the Legislature -- a governor in 1917 and a judge in 1975.
Nevertheless, legislators sought to impeach and remove Hall from the board of regents last year. Their effort ultimately collapsed when they couldn't come up with grounds.
But that's not to say they didn't try. After the committee's own lawyers told it they couldn't find anything impeachable and that Hall was actually fulfilling his duties as a regent, the committee commissioned a second opinion from Houston criminal lawyer Rusty Hardin.
Rusty Hardin? Somebody must know him. Hardin dutifully produced a 187-page document that toyed around with several possible charges, eventually tossing out most of them. But Hardin did settle on one theme: Even if Hall was right, even if the situations he uncovered were egregious, Hall nevertheless unduly burdened the university's staff by asking too many questions.
As its authority on this point, the Hardin report quoted State Senator Jim Pitts, an Ellis County Republican whose own son was admitted to UT Law School with LSAT scores well below the average for admissions and who subsequently failed to pass the bar exam on his first three attempts. The report quoted an outraged Senator Pitts as saying that Hall, "while holding office as a member of the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System, may have abused that office by making numerous unreasonably burdensome, wasteful and intrusive requests for information of certain University of Texas System institutions as a member of the board of regents as well as on his own behalf."
Hardin elaborated, saying Hall "may have violated the duties and responsibilities of his office and interfered with the proper functioning of The University of Texas System and its component institutions by disregarding the processes and procedures of the board of regents concerning the gathering and handling of information from institutions of the system.
"Hall's promulgation of excessive and unreasonable record requests and his open criticism of UT Austin's development efforts in a way contrary to the interests of the institution are also areas of concern."
So the real problem was not the crooked backdoor admissions scam or the funny money scandal Hall uncovered in the law school compensation system or the fraudulent claims the university was making about its endowment fund. The real problem was that Hall had been "burdening" the university by asking a lot of questions.
All of that was fresh in Burton's mind, apparently, when she saw the same logic buried in the Seliger bill. That bill, if it became law, would give the majority on a board of regents or trustees the power to muzzle a member who was sticking his nose in where the rest of the regents didn't want it stuck.
At the hearing on the Seliger No More Wallace Hall Bill, the language in the Hardin report was fresh in Burton's mind. She told the committee that the bill was characterizing efforts to get answers to legitimate questions as "actually being unduly interfering."
Burton said, "That part right there is where I have great concern and cannot support this whole great bill just because of that alone."
So how important is that part to Seliger? I tried to reach him, exchanged emails with his staff and sent him my question in writing: "Is there anything in the behavior or actions of UT System Regent Wallace Hall since he went on the board that would have violated the spirit or law of SB 177 as proposed by you?"
Never heard back.
But of course Seliger thinks he could get Hall with the new language. We already know from the past actions of the legislators and of the two ginks just confirmed as regents that this is the very language they tried to use in the past to shut Hall down. Now, if Seliger gets his bill passed with the language in it, their rationale for a cover-up will be enshrined in state law.
And look at the cost. All of Hall's disclosures were aimed at protecting the public interest. The actions of people like Pitts and Seliger are aimed at stiff-arming the public interest. The language Seliger wants in his law will serve as a threatening shadow over any and every university board member in Texas who asks nosy questions the way Hall did. That's a lot of family members to toss out with one tub of water.