Texas AG Paxton Says UT Regent Wallace Hall Should Get Records He Needs to Do His Job
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton
University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall wins again. This week Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion upholding every single claim Hall made to him in defense of Hall's right to information from the university, shooting down all of the university's arguments for muzzling Hall.
You know what? Whenever I write about Hall and his long war with top brass of the university system, some of his strong supporters and fans show up in the comments section, but they often are drowned out by his scary rabid detractors.
I mean, man! When people get mad at Hall, they do get crazy: "Hall is a weasel who has done nothing but cause trouble as a regent," a mouth-foamer told me earlier this week. And he was just getting started.
Another one told me it was absurd for me to describe UT System Chancellor William McRaven as an employee of the board of regents. "Chancellor McRaven is not 'Hall's employee'. How stupendously over reaching is that?"
So tell me, Stupendous. Who does McRaven work for? God?
Anyway, I have to admit I derive a little bit of personal satisfaction every time Hall goes into battle and scores another total victory, making his enemies dead wrong and me ... well, modesty won't let me go on about it.
I told you Monday how McRaven, the very recently retired Navy admiral who caught Bin Laden, had barely taken office this winter as chancellor over the nine universities and five health institutions in the UT system when he chose up sides against Hall. McRaven is a serious military hero with a reputation for impeccable judgement. All we can hope is that needed to break in those civilian clothes a little longer before he jumped in.
Hall began uncovering serious wrongdoing at the university shortly after Governor Rick Perry appointed him to the board of regents in 2011. Every single charge he has brought against the university -- faculty members giving themselves half million dollar bonuses from private slush funds, the president of the university giving student admissions to key legislators for favors, more, worse -- has been upheld whenever anybody outside the university has taken a serious look.
But Hall thinks even the investigations that have vindicated him have suffered from various degrees of cover-up. An expensive investigative report by Kroll International, a private investigations firm, confirmed that former UT President William Powers had been running a backdoor admissions operation, colluding with key members of the Legislature to get politically wired candidates into the undergraduate and graduate schools.
But Kroll leaned over backward not to name any of the key legislators. Hall thinks that was wrong. His reasoning is pretty straightforward. If powerful members of the Legislature were engaged in corrupting and abusing the university, then the voters of Texas need to know who they are.
But when Hall told a board of regents meeting earlier this year that he wanted to talk to the Kroll investigators, most of his peers on the board and McRaven were eager to shut him down. McRaven wasn't even in office when the abuses uncovered by Hall took place and shouldn't have felt any ownership of the issue, especially since the Kroll report found that Hall was a truth-teller and the UT system brass liars.
But McRaven -- who does work for the board of regents and is their employee, of course --- crowded in close with the anti-Hall majority on the board. The board of regents' own rules wouldn't allow them to shut Hall down immediately and entirely, but at McRaven's urging they set up a number of hurdles that would make it virtually impossible for Hall to get a clean shot at honest information. Especially galling, I thought, was a provision that McRaven, who works for Hall, would be the judge of what documents Hall could see.
Hall -- who does not quit -- wrote to Paxton, the new Texas attorney general, and asked him for an opinion on the board's posture. Paxton had just come into office with a strong odor of tea about him, so some people thought Hall was making a mistake by stirring him up, afraid that Paxton would fire back an opinion nattering on about Shariah law or terror babies or something else wing-nutty.
Instead, Paxton's opinion, which is below, is tight, right and upholds Hall on every single point. Paxton opens the opinion by observing that Texas law provides specifically and pointedly that individual university regents, unlike public trustees at many other types of institutions in Texas, have a right and authority to demand information of the institutions they govern, whether a majority of the board they serve on likes it or not.
Paxton builds a lot of that authority on another mandate of Texas law that endows and burdens a university trustee with a fiduciary responsibility for the well-being of the institution. That may sound like a privilege, but fiduciary responsibility can bite back. A fiduciary who muffs the job can be legally liable for it under certain circumstances -- liable in ways that the institution can't cover for him.
Paxton reasons that if the law makes somebody a fiduciary, it damn well should give him the ability and the authority to get the information he needs to know if things are being done right. Frankly, even though Paxton didn't say it, I read that part of the opinion as a rebuke of other UT regents who have adopted a three-chimpanzees see-no-hear-no pose whenever Hall has brought troubling matters to them. What about their fiduciary responsibility? Maybe somebody should write out a dictionary definition on a card and slip it in with their briefing materials for the next meeting.
But my favorite part, I do admit, was the one in which Paxton addressed the arrangement by which McRaven is supposed to tell Hall what materials Hall can see. Paxton explained that this issue was settled 32 years ago in a matter involving school boards. Paxton's opinion quotes a 1983 AG opinion saying, "to prevent a district trustee from obtaining those records ... would create an anomalous situation in which a district employee could prevent such trustee from discharging his official duties."
You caught that, right? Employee. Employee. The guy who works for the other guy. McRaven is the employee. He works for the board of regents. Hall is a regent. That doesn't give Hall individual direction over McRaven. If Hall wants McRaven to do something, he has to get a majority of the board to vote to do it. But you also don't want a situation in which the employee is behaving like a board member's supervisor or parent.
No telling what will happen next. McRaven and his supporters on the board of regents could still stonewall. An attorney general's opinion has no force of law. It's not an order. The crooked legislators behind the scenes will be screaming for a stonewall.
But there is this. Hall doesn't go off the board until 2017. That's a long time. We know he doesn't quit. And every time he wins another of these rounds, the university and its pals in the Legislature look dirtier and dumber.
It would be really great if they all grew up, gave Hall the information he seeks and resolved to take whatever medicine they have coming. That's called dignity. I don't know about legislators, but universities need some dignity.
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