Is This the Most Dangerous Man in Texas?

Wallace Hall has been a one-man wrecking crew in his attempt to bring down the president of the University of Texas at Austin. Is he an out-of-control regent who deserves to be impeached? Is he a selfless hero who is interested only in the truth? As an unprecedented battle of ego, money, and power engulfs the Capitol, the one thing that is certain is that Hall won’t back down.
Hall, photographed on the front porch of his home with his dog, Jessie, on June 12, 2014.
Photograph by Darren Braun

Editors' note: In late July, after this feature story on Regent Wallace went to press, William Powers, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, submitted his letter of resignation, effective next year. On Monday, August 11, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations approved a motion to admonish and censure  University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall for “misconduct, incompetency in the performance of official duties, or behavior unbefitting a nominee for and holder of a state office.” Hall issued a statement declaring that the committee's findings "are based on distortions, untruths, and intentional misrepresentations." Read the full 26-page report the committee released here.

On a bright morning in mid-May, Wallace Hall greeted me with a carefree grin at his North Dallas office. “The Legislature is getting ready to impeach you and you’re grinning?” I asked.

“You think I’d be upset because some politicians want me gone?” Hall replied, offering me coffee in a Styrofoam cup. “You’re about to go down in Texas history,” I said, as Hall sat on a couch beneath a white board that was covered with stick figures his children had drawn years earlier. He was wearing a button-down shirt with khaki pants, and he propped his field boots on a coffee table stacked with books on subjects ranging from African wildlife to synthetic biology. He gave me a shrug. “Seriously, this is a big deal,” I said, trying again.

“A big deal?” Hall finally said. “I’m supposed to be anxious because I’m asking tough questions? Because I’m doing the right thing?”

Only two people in the state’s history have been impeached and removed from office: Governor James “Pa” Ferguson, in 1917, who had been indicted for embezzlement, and Judge O. P. Carrillo, in 1976, who had been indicted for tax fraud. Hall, a wealthy, blue-eyed, 52-year-old entrepreneur and investor, could very well be the third.

The difference is that Hall is not an elected official and he hasn’t been charged with a crime. In 2011 Governor Rick Perry appointed him to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, which oversees nine universities, including the flagship University of Texas at Austin, and six health institutions. About a year into his tenure, Hall began telling other regents that William Powers, UT-Austin’s president, had not been honest with them about his knowledge of a secret program that provided “forgivable loans” to the faculty at the UT School of Law, where Powers had previously served as dean. A few months later, he alleged Powers had knowingly and improperly counted nonmonetary gifts as part of the total amount of money raised in the university’s endowment campaign. And in 2013, in his most damning charge, Hall asserted that Powers had been operating a program out of his office in which he admitted the children of prominent legislators and their benefactors to UT—even if those students did not meet the university’s high academic standards.

The allegations set off an uproar, and most of the fury was directed at Hall himself. Politicians, fiercely loyal UT alumni, and some of Hall’s fellow regents came to Powers’s defense, claiming that Hall was carrying out what many of them described as a “witch hunt.” During the 2013 legislative session, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst arranged for the Senate to pass a resolution praising Powers. Dewhurst went so far as to bring Powers to the floor of the chamber, where he received a standing ovation. Tears glistening in his eyes, Dewhurst turned to Powers and said, “We are lucky to have you.”

Speaker of the House Joe Straus then jumped into the fray, empowering the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to investigate Hall’s conduct. The committee, which began meeting last summer, hired the famous Houston trial attorney Rusty Hardin to act as its “special counsel,” and he eventually produced a 174-page report accusing Hall of “disclosing confidential student information, pressuring [Transparency] Committee witnesses to change their testimony, and burdening UT-Austin with impossible document production demands.” Hall himself, the report continued, was “myopic,” “mean-spirited,” “mercenary,” and “vindictive”—a man on an “incessant search for things and people to criticize.”

Earlier this spring, when Hardin’s report was released to the public, the co-chairs of the Transparency Committee sent it to the Travis County district attorney and the Travis County attorney in hopes that they would investigate Hall for criminal wrongdoing. The committee itself then reconvened and voted seven to one that there was enough evidence to impeach Hall. The Houston Chronicle thundered that he was “an out-of-control appointee,” and the chairman of the UT System board, El Paso oil billionaire Paul Foster, called on Hall to quit, turning to him at the end of a regents’ meeting and saying in an almost pleading voice, “I urge you to take a selfless step to benefit the UT System.”

But Hall had his own high-powered supporters. In a statement released after the Transparency Committee’s vote, Perry commended Hall “for his persistence—in the face of overwhelming opposition from bureaucrats—in trying to ensure the institutions of higher education under his purview are operating effectively, efficiently, and within the law.” Charles Miller, a former chairman of the UT System board, fired off a letter to Foster claiming that Hall “has been industrious and has given you and the public his best judgment, inconvenient as it may be to the opinion of powerful special interests.” He added, “It’s hard to imagine more troubling behavior from you than to see such a weak response to other people’s angry criticism of a fellow board member.”

Even the Wall Street Journal ’s editorial board took Hall’s side, writing that his “real offense has been to expose a cozy and possibly corrupt relationship between politicians and the university.” The editorial concluded, “He could have made his life easier by walking away from this volunteer job, but doing so would be a victory for the political and academic elites who don’t want public scrutiny of the UT System. We hope lawmakers walk

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week