AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday for the first time in their investigation of a University of Texas System regent who has been accused of conducting a "witch hunt" in an effort to oust the Austin campus president.
Some state lawmakers have accused regent Wallace Hall of misusing the authority of his office in an effort to get Austin campus President Bill Powers fired or force him to resign.
The House Select Transparency in State Agency Operations Committee is considering whether to take unprecedented impeachment action against Hall.
"We are plowing new ground here," panel co-chairman Dan Flynn said, calling the proceedings a "historic moment."
The panel is charged with investigating whether Hall failed to properly disclose lawsuits against him when he filed his application for appointment, whether he abused his office by swamping the Texas campus with records requests for more than 800,000 pages of documents, and whether he released private student or employee information.
Hall's lawyer says his Hall's efforts have raised important questions about political influence over university admissions, fundraising and a now-defunct faculty loan program at the law school. He denied Hall released protected information to the public.
Hall is part of nine-member governing board that repeatedly has clashed with Powers over issues such as tuition and graduation rates, the roles of teaching and research, and other issues. Powers is believed to have a slim majority of support on the board, and the power struggle has led prominent alumni to rally in his support.
Powers did not attend the hearing. Early Tuesday, he was named chairman of the Association of American Universities.
Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee who filed the initial impeachment charges, said he believes Hall has engaged in a "witch hunt" against Powers and has damaged the university's academic reputational nationally. He urged the panel to recommend to the full House that Hall be impeached.
"His actions have targeted one institution and one president" in a 15-campus system, Pitts said, calling Hall's records request a "fishing expedition."
Testimony on Tuesday painted Hall as aggressive in seeking documents, including information to which he might not have been entitled. But witnesses said Hall had the support of system lawyers in demanding confidential information.
None of Tuesday's witnesses gave specific examples detailing any misuse of the information by Hall.
Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, questioned whether Hall's actions were illegal and would warrant impeachment. However, the panel does have to conclude Hall broke the law to recommend impeachment.
"Some of this seems to be just bad blood between a regent and a president," Larson said.
Hall did not attend the hearing and his attorney, Allan Van Fleet, is not allowed to cross-examine witnesses. Van Fleet has questioned whether the panel, which is made up of Pitts' legislative colleagues, can be impartial.
Kevin Hegarty, the top records officer for the Austin campus, said he had never encountered records requests from regents similar to what Hall demanded. Out of nearly 1,300 records requests to the university from January 2011 to June 2013, about 1,200 were related to Hall.
"There was extreme pressure," to handle Hall's information requests, Hegarty said. "I had people working around the clock."
Hegarty said Hall demanded copies without redactions, and was told by system lawyers the campus could not withhold private information from the regents. Hegarty wanted to ask the state attorney general for an opinion but was told by system lawyers he could not.
Carol Longoria, whose job was to pull together documents for Hall, testified that she considered alerting local prosecutors because she worried federal privacy laws may be broken.
"I was concerned I was being asked to do something illegal," she said. "That gave me a lot of heartburn, having to give up that information."
Pitts noted that Hall's records demands caught documents of his son's attempts to get into the University of Texas law school, including that retook the entrance exam and that Pitts wrote him a letter of recommendation.
"We are very confident he did not violate student privacy," Van Fleet said. "Representative Pitts is on a witch hunt against Wallace Hall."