After months of talking about the serious business of subjecting a state official to impeachment proceedings, members of a House committee are scheduled to meet Monday to decide just how to do it.
The target of the impeachment effort is Wallace Hall Jr., a University of Texas regent. Legislators assigned to the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations will attempt to navigate largely uncharted territory. Previous impeachment proceedings have involved elected officials — Gov. Jim “Pa” Ferguson in 1917 and state District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975. University regents are appointed by the governor, which makes the impeachment effort a probable first in the state’s history.
It is imperative that committee members be vigilant in protecting Hall’s rights to due process. The committee must also err on the side of caution in keeping the proceedings as open as possible to the public.
Testimony heard by the committee that investigated charges against South Texas judge Carrillo was heard publicly. Though there is little precedent to follow, a commitment to openness would be a solid place to start.
The latest committee investigation was launched when state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, introduced a resolution calling for Hall to be impeached. Pitts accused the regent of filing inaccurate information on the forms filed with the governor’s office before his appointment.
Though the information has since been corrected, Pitts — who announced his retirement this year — said it was too late.
Hall “may have obtained … office through misrepresentation of material facts regarding his experience and qualifications in a manner that violates the penal laws of this state,” Pitts wrote.
Hall’s incomplete disclosure may have triggered the impeachment proceedings, but his repeated requests for documents, emails and memoranda concerning the management of the University of Texas at Austin were the bullets.
Hall’s critics characterized his repeated requests as a witch hunt. Regents were already being criticized for attempting to micromanage the institution. Tensions between the regents and UT President Bill Powers and his allies in and out of the Legislature are high. Regents themselves are divided on the line between oversight and harassment. Alumni groups were quick to defend Powers. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst got emotional in his defense of the UT president.
It is a backdrop that begs for the specially selected committee, co-chaired by state Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.
The committee meets Monday for “planning, scheduling and courses of action for upcoming hearings … (the panel also) may meet in executive session for the limited purpose of examining a witness or deliberating, considering, or debating a decision.” The posting raised understandable concern from Stephen M. Ryan, the lawyer representing Hall.
As the American-Statesman’s Ralph K.M. Haurwitz reported earlier this week, Ryan cited a “consistent and persistent rumor” that the committee or a subcommittee would hear testimony from Pitts in executive session.
Alvardo told Haurwitz that the committee has no plans to do so, but that word doesn’t satisfy Ryan. “We ask that you reassure us in writing that the Committee does not intend to conduct any of its investigation in private,” Ryan wrote.
And though we’re normally wary of reacting to Capitol rumors, this one is indicative of the level of suspicion surrounding this investigation. Impeachment — the full House would have to vote on any articles passed by the committee, and the Senate would have to convict — is a hammer.
A decision to use it must bring with it a decision to use it with great care.
Not only is Hall’s reputation on the line, so is the state’s.
Best to dispel any potential accusations of violations of due process in the proceedings by keeping the proceedings open.
Witnesses should be available for examination and cross examination by both sides.
The committee would do well to study the impeachment proceedings brought against Carrillo in 1975. The committee hearing that case was chaired by former state Rep. L. DeWitt Hale of Corpus Christi. Hale was careful lawyer and an adept leader — gracious, courtly and open.
He set a good example for this committee to follow.