University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall is a hero. He ought to be given a medal and there ought to be a parade through downtown Austin in his honor.
Hall was appointed regent by Gov. Rick Perry, and he soon found serious corruption in the admissions process at the UT Law School. He also found a slush fund and some large off-the-books sweetheart loans to faculty, which is a whole other story.
In the corrupt admissions case, politicians in both parties were using their clout to get their unqualified family members and others admitted to the school. Hall has fought against the university’s administration, against politicians and against the state media — who have repeatedly called for him to resign or for Perry to fire him or for the legislature to impeach him — to get the facts.
A week ago, the Dallas Observer published this thorough take on Hall’s exploits. Hall comes off as the hero that he truly is, and nearly everyone else in Texas who was involved comes off as corrupt or wagon-circling around the network of the powerful and connected. The university’s administration comes off as whiny and dishonest, along with shady and corrupt.
To his credit, Gov. Perry never once wavered in supporting Hall, even in the face of the university’s drive to impeach Hall via the legislature.
To their shame, just about every major newspaper in the state called for Hall to step down at some point. His crime, according to them, was that he asked for too much paperwork and information. This was the media lobbing that accusation — that Hall wanted too much information. Apparently the media can find a reason to oppose the freedom of information.
Their ears were being tickled by politicians who had things to hide, that Hall was bound to uncover. Meanwhile, Watchdog.org’s Jon Cassidy owned the story. That surely annoyed the drive-by media even more. He ran circles around the media, as they circled around and nuzzled up to the powerful.
Cassidy is back with another doozy. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, the nation’s most infamous drunk-driving DA, has convened a grand jury to criminalize Hall’s actions as regent. Actions, it’s worth pointing out again, that have uncovered real corruption at UT — and which were not illegal.
Lehmberg has found that Section 39.02 of the Texas Penal Code has a magic property. It turns the rest of state law— property code, education code, water code, etc.—into a vast extension of the criminal code. So long as Lehmberg can claim that the Republican was trying to “harm” someone, then just about anything can be turned into a crime. That’s how Perry’s exercise of his veto power became a crime (you can supply the air quotes). And that’s how a regent of the University of Texas System is facing actual jail time for supposed failure to “enhance the public image” of the university, or “nurture” it, or “achieve the maximum operating efficiency.”
If those don’t sound like crimes, it’s because they’re not. They’re bits of boilerplate from the state Education Code on the duties of a regent. But the magic paragraph makes a knowing violation of any “law relating to the public servant’s office” a crime if it’s done “with intent to harm or defraud another.”
The same law makes it a crime to knowingly misuse government property with intent to harm, which is the farfetched theory being employed against Perry’s veto of funding for Lehmberg’s office.
Read the rest. The potential indictment turns on some emails.
Hall found some emails between [UT President Bill] Powers’s office and the dean of the law school discussing whether or not to admit the son of the state House Appropriations Committee chairman, despite his poor scores on the Law School Admissions Test. (They admitted him; he’s flunked the bar three times since.) Hall showed the email to an official investigator from the state attorney general’s office, and to his defense attorney, who cited it in a letter to the legislative committee, naming no names. The name came out when a reporter bluffed the chairman into outing his son.
Those emails are the proverbial smoking gun in the corrupt admissions investigation. But —
The persecutors and prosecutors contend that the emails are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and by nearly identical state law as well, and that Hall committed some sort of crime in showing it to his attorney or the investigator. One theory is that this “leak” is the real “abuse of office,” rather than the whole non-enhancement of the public image theory. But that would involve proving that Hall “intentionally or knowingly” leaked FERPA-protected information, when the emails are almost certainly not FERPA-protected “education records” in the first place. The Supreme Court has ruled that “FERPA implies that education records are institutional records kept by a single central custodian, such as a registrar,” or that they’re “kept in a filing cabinet in a records room at the school or on a permanent secure database.” That wouldn’t include every last email or assignment that might include the student’s name. But that’s the sort of thing a motivated prosecutor never tells a grand jury.
Travis County grand juries don’t seem to be bothered with the implications of granting full felony indictments for, in Perry’s case, saying what he intended to do and then doing it using the constitutional power of his office, and in Hall’s case, seeking information from the university that he had every right to seek as regent. That the information Hall uncovered did point directly to actual corruption doesn’t seem to bother Lehmberg. She has not convened any grand juries to look into that. She is investigating Hall for investigating UT.
Perry’s speech and actions, both legal and protected, do not become a crime because he combined them. Hall’s actions, seeking information in accord with his duties as regent and consulting with investigators and his own lawyer, are not crimes either. Not separately, and not together. They just aren’t. And Lehmberg surely knows that, just as she surely knew that driving around with an open bottle of vodka in her car was, in fact, a crime.
The s0-called Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA is going to have to be removed from the county. Drunk-driving Rosemary Lehmberg is on a war path against the rule of law and common sense. In attacking Hall, Lehmberg is defending corruption at one of Texas’ most prestigious public universities. Indicting Hall is another way of attacking Perry and escalating the Democrats’ lawfare against Republicans.
The Texas legislature is going to have to take action, but it does not return to session until 2015. By that time, Lehmberg’s office may well have indicted every single Republican of note in the state.
Let’s take one last look at the media here, too. In that Observer story linked above, Jim Schutze calls them out:
Last February The Houston Chronicle asked in an editorial, “What can micromanagement look like? Piles and piles of papers delivered in response to document requests made by an individual regent — in this case, UT Regent Wallace Hall Jr. — is one sure sign. When regents overstep, they distract and discourage talented leaders.”
A month later under the headline “UT Regent Hall Is an Embarrassment,” the San Antonio Express-News said in an editorial, “[Governor] Perry, of course, could end this circus by calling for Hall’s resignation. We’re waiting.”
Last May The Dallas Morning News asked in an editorial, “In short, where exactly is the line between aggressive watchdog and overbearing, possibly illegal pain in the neck? And did Wallace Hall cross it? In the end, the answer is what really matters.”
Being the Morning News, they didn’t say what the answer was.
The Texas Tribune, which receives six-figure gifts from the University of Texas, even allowed one of the accused politicians to attack Hall directly.
Reeve Hamilton in The Texas Tribune provided [state Rep. Jim] Pitts a podium from which to make an unchallenged defense. He admitted writing a letter asking the law school to admit his son, but he told the Tribune, “Did I ever call for my son — or the over 100 people I’ve recommended over the years — and ask for special treatment? No, I did not.”
The Tribune story said Pitts “added that writing such letters has long been standard practice for lawmakers at the Capitol.” And there The Texas Tribune, which has received six-figure gifts from the university system, let the matter rest.
What will the Texas media do now, with Lehmberg’s clearly outrageous attempt to indict Wallace Hall? They could come clean and start reporting on all this fairly and objectively. But that is decidedly not the way to bet. Such reporting might burn connections to the powerful, and in the Trib’s case, jeopardize the non-profit publication’s gravy train.