Watchdog: Accountability

2 lawmakers investigating whether University of Texas regent took free tickets

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Austin, Texas (AP) — Two state lawmakers on the committee investigating whether a University of Texas System regent should be impeached over his battles with popular Austin campus President Bill Powers went to the Texas-Oklahoma football game with free tickets provided by Powers' office.

The University of Texas has long offered free football tickets to all the state's legislators, including the annual showcase event at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. But this year's game was played while House lawmakers are investigating whether Regent Wallace Hall abused the authority of his governor-appointed position to undermine Powers and potentially get him fired.

Although no laws were broken, Hall's attorney questioned whether Reps. Eric Johnson and Four Price could be impartial in deciding his client's case after accepting the tickets. Both lawmakers are among eight members of the Select Transparency in State Agency Operations Committee, which is expected to hear its first testimony in the charges against Hall this week.

If impeached, Hall could be removed from office.

"I am surprised and disappointed," said Hall's attorney Allan Van Fleet, adding that committee members should make sure they can review charges against Hall "fairly and impartially."

Johnson, a Dallas Democrat who also serves as vice chairman of a House ethics committee, declined comment. Price, a Republican from Amarillo, did not respond to several messages left at his office.

According to Powers' office, Johnson and Price were among 19 state lawmakers who accepted free tickets to the Texas-Oklahoma game on Oct. 12, but were the only ones from the investigations panel.

Johnson, Price and committee co-chairman Rep. Dan Flynn were also on a list of 37 lawmakers who accepted an invitation to a pre-game reception hosted by Powers and UT's system chancellor, though Flynn said he decided not to go to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. It was unclear if Johnson and Price attended because Powers' office did not track who showed up.

Powers spokesman Gary Susswein said the university, like other Texas schools, has long offered complimentary football tickets to all the regents and lawmakers.

"Some use them, some don't," he said.

Indeed, the practice is so common that Hall himself has frequently accepted Texas tickets, even as he has continued to fiercely criticize the university's president. Hall attended two Texas football games this season with tickets provided annually to the regents and chancellor by the university. Hall said he did not attend the Texas-Oklahoma game but gave his tickets to family. He declined to comment about Johnson and Price.

While accepting the free tickets is legal and a regular practice among lawmakers, Johnson and Price should have declined this year because of their positions on the investigating committee, said Tom "Smitty" Smith, Texas director of the ethics watchdog organization Public Citizen.

"It could lead to doubts about the outcome and haunt the process," Smith said. "It's a question of judgment."

Flynn said the committee did not discuss whether its members should decline tickets this year.

"I trust the integrity of Four Price and Eric Johnson. I have confidence in this committee," said Flynn, R-Van, whose panel meets Tuesday and Wednesday . "A football game is a football game. ... If your district has a problem with it, deal with it."

Other state lawmakers accepting tickets to the Texas-Oklahoma game included Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Sen. Higher Education Committee, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The group also included Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Each guest of the president is allowed to purchase the tickets, but Seliger was the only lawmaker to pay for his this year, according to Powers' office.

Branch, Seliger, Pitts and Dewhurst all have been vocal critics of Hall and the ongoing power struggle between Powers and several members of the university's governing body. In February, Dewhurst accused Hall and other regents of engaging in "character assassination" against Powers. Pitts called Hall's probes into campus business a "witch hunt" and filed the impeachment charges.

Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, who also is on the committee investigating Hall, said she accepted four tickets to a Texas football game on Sept. 14, but paid $255 for them. Gonzalez said she doesn't accept free gifts if they are something her constituents can't also get for free.

Gonzalez said she's "very careful" to avoid "even the remote suspicion of impropriety."

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