Digging for dirt and nothing else

Yesterday, The Texas Tribune published a revealing story about UT System Regent Wallace Hall Jr. 

These days, Hall is best known on campus and at the Capitol for his apparent mission to unseat UT President William Powers Jr. Specifically, Hall proposed and received approval from the other regents on March 20 to fund an investigation of forgivable loans given from a private foundation to law school faculty, even though the Texas attorney general signed off on a previous investigation, the results of which placed no blame on Powers — who served as dean of the law school before becoming UT president — for “lack of transparency” related to the loans.

According to the Tribune story, Hall shares his own lack-of-transparency moment: When he was being vetted after the governor nominated him as a regent, he omitted mention of several lawsuits to which he had been a party, despite a requirement he do so.  

“The lawsuits themselves may or may not prove embarrassing to Hall, but the failure to disclose them provides fodder to critics who think the UT regents are on a ‘witch hunt’ to hurt its flagship university and take out its leader,” the Tribune reports.

Among those “critics” the Tribune article cites are state senators.

In December, when covering the development that Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, failed to disclose his connection to a company the board had selected to build a new children’s hospital — at the time the company the board selected had a pending business deal with a company Powell co-founded with his son — this editorial board said, “for a public official, the appearance of a conflict of interest often drains public trust as irrevocably as a verified one.” The same observation applies to Hall’s omissions from his regent application. Powell didn’t view his connection to the hospital as relevant information. 

Yesterday, in response to the Tribune’s questions, Hall called his omissions unintentional. “I do not recall the specifics,” Hall wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I have been asked by the governor’s office to supplement my disclosure and will do so shortly.” The brevity of Hall’s explanation starkly contrasts with his aggressive pursuit of Powers’ possible vulnerabilities due to the law school loans. We are disappointed and disillusioned by Hall’s apparent failure to disclose information, but we also aren’t surprised.

The missing Hall lawsuits is the latest development in the power struggle between the Board of Regents, the Texas Senate and the UT administration, yet not a decisive one. This development suggests two things we already suspected: First, the regents consider themselves policy-setting, appointed judges. In their view, their sole responsibility is to scrutinize administrators they are charged with overseeing. Second, they do not view themselves as public officials who should be subject to the same scrutiny as others. But that scrutiny is what the Legislature is applying, evident in one state senator’s sharp comments in reaction to the disclosures about Hall’s omissions. 

“Clearly this was withheld. It would seem to indicate Mr. Hall felt like it was disqualifying for his nomination,” Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told the Tribune. “Withholding that, I think, is a very, very serious thing.”

The regents, the administration and the legislators in this fight are digging for dirt on one another. In our online age when the splashiest “gotcha” moment has the potential to derail a career, each side attempts to catch the other lest they be caught themselves.

After all that has happened, distrust, and possible loathing, must thrive among the politicians, the regents and the administration. As this brawl gets uglier, we expect Gov. Rick Perry and certain members of the Legislature to emerge from behind the curtain and openly enter the arena.     

We don’t know who will win and who will lose. But we know this fight is no longer about the long-term goals of this University, but rather about the short-term employment and power grabs of those who govern it.