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Texas

Grand Jury Recommends UT Regent's Removal

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Charlie Pearce/Texas Tribune
UT Regent Wallace Hall on April 28, 2014. Lawmakers admonished and censured Hall, who was waging a personal investigation into lawmaker influence in the UT-Austin admissions process.

From the Texas Tribune: In an unusual, strongly worded report, a Travis County grand jury recommended this week that University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall be removed from office.

It didn’t, however, indict him or accuse him of any criminal wrongdoing. Instead, it called Hall’s behavior “unaccountable and abusive.”

"Transparency and accountability are key elements in maintaining citizens' trust in their government," the report said. "Regent Hall demonstrated neither accountability nor transparency in his actions."

Hall faced allegations that he broke the law when he shared private student information with his lawyers while he was investigating the University of Texas at Austin's admissions process. The public integrity unit in the Travis County district attorney's office began investigating him in 2014, as a state House panel was digging into his tenure. 

Hall didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but has denied breaking the law and vigorously defended himself. 

The grand jury was investigating whether to indict Hall on charges of abuse of official capacity, misuse of official information and official oppression. Members reviewed the final report of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Operations that investigated Hall. They also spoke with witnesses involved in the case. 

Gregg Cox, director of the county’s public integrity unit that handled the investigation, said that it isn't rare for grand juries to issue reports. Members sometimes become vested in a certain case. When they cannot find enough evidence to support an indictment, they say something, Cox said.

"We presented facts and law to the grand jury, and this is what the grand jury chose to do," he said.

Cox stressed the option to put out a report is not something the public integrity unit or the district attorney's office instructs them to do.

"There have been Travis County grand juries in the past who have issued reports in cases which did not result in an indictment," Cox said. "They're a body that can issue reports, issue indictments, do what they want. It's not our deal. They are impanelled by the court, they operate under the purview of the court and they are a judicial body that we do not control."

The report says that Hall made open records requests for more than 800,000 pages of documents, costing the university more than $1 million to respond. Some requests were made twice, the report says, meaning the university had to duplicate its efforts.

“Hall never divulged what purpose or goal he had padlocked in his mind before launching this immense barrage of records requests, rapid firing them in a fashion seemingly intended to deteriorate the systems in place,” the report said. “Furthermore, it does not appear that he discussed his intent with the other regents to gain consensus on this level of use of university resources.”

The report notes that some of the documents given to Hall didn’t have confidential student information redacted. Hall then gave those records to his lawyer and the state attorney general’s Office. 

In a letter to legislators last May, Hall's lawyer Allan Van Fleet said that his client's requests were "reasonable and necessary."

The report also criticized Hall for a perceived “lack of transparency.” It noted that Hall declined to speak with the grand jury and the legislative committee that investigated him.

“Hall used his positional power to the point of abuse,” the report said. “The over leveraging of his power resulted in lost talent, lowered morale, exposure of confidential student information, and unreasonable expenses.”

Hall has said that he would have testified before the House panel if he had been subpoenaed, but that didn't happen. He has said the committee's criticisms were based on "untruths" and "distortions."

In addition to recommending Hall’s removal, the grand jury also suggested multiple changes in UT System Board of Regents policies. Those include limitations on how much regents can spend on investigations and requests without full board approval. The report also suggests that regents be required to state their intentions for all open records requests.

After the report was released, state Rep. Dan Flynn, a co-chair of the House subcommittee that investigated Hall, said the grand jury’s actions vindicated the subcommittee’s work. But he said he didn’t think it required further legislative action.

“I feel like the Legislature does not need to be micro-managing the universities and I am going to move on to other things,” he said.

Bobby Blanchard contributed to this report.

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