UT Regents Fight Heats Up as Board Reshuffles

Investigation into Wallace Hall continues

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 30, 2013

Rusty Hardin
Rusty Hardin

The fight between Texas lawmakers and the UT System Board of Regents grew stormier this week as the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations hired aggressive attorney Rusty Hardin as their special counsel. Meanwhile, the regents attempted to smooth the waters by changing their leadership.

Committee co-chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, announced on Aug. 23 that Hardin will provide legal advice as they investigate whether UT Regent Wallace Hall was part of a witch hunt against UT President Bill Powers: Hall faces potential impeachment proceedings and removal from office. Like the recent appointment of white-collar crime specialist Michael McCrum as special counsel to investigate Gov. Rick Perry's crusade against the Travis County Public Integrity Unit (see "Special Prosecutor Named to Probe Perry's PIU Motives," Aug. 23), Hardin is a politically interesting pick. A former Harris County assistant district attorney, Hardin was special prosecutor in the court of inquiry over the 1987 wrongful conviction of Michael Morton for his wife's murder, leading to the arrest of Williamson County Judge Ken Anderson for hiding evidence. However, Democrats with a longer memory may remember him as a go-to attorney for political allies of George W. Bush and Tom Delay (see "The DA Makes a Deal," Dec. 17, 2004), and chief trial counsel to Ken Starr during the Whitewater investigation against Pres. Bill Clinton. However, in a sign that bygones may be bygones – or at least be put on hold – committee co-chair Carol Alvarado, D-Houston said, "I have full confidence that [Hardin] will carry out his work with integrity and professionalism."

The day before Hardin's hiring, the UT regents shuffled their leadership, replacing land developer and Powers critic Gene Powell as chairman with the more conciliatory Paul Foster, the El Paso-based executive chairman of Western Refining, Inc. Currently Powell's vice chair, Foster has just begun a second six-year term on the board. In his first public statement after the meeting, Foster said he was committed to improving relationships between the regents and the Legislature.

At the meeting, two new regents took their seats at the table: McAllen municipal judge and Loya Insurance Group chief attorney Ernest Aliseda, and billionaire Jeff Hildebrand, CEO of the politically influential Hilcorp Energy Company.* During their Senate confirmation hearings in February, both men and Foster were grilled by lawmakers over their independence from the governor, and effectively forced to pledge that they would not remove Powers from office without proper process or consultation.

*In the original version of this story, we incorrectly reported that UT System Regent Jeff Hildebrand is a graduate of Texas A&M. He is in fact a two-time graduate of UT Austin, holding both a BA in Geology and a Masters in Petroleum Engineering. We regret the error.

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