By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
You could fit all the people who really want to impeach Wallace Hall into a luxury box at a football stadium — specifically, the presidential suite at Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium.
They’re all frequent guests of Bill Powers, the president of the University of Texas, who spends more money entertaining legislators and other VIPs at football games in one year than all the lobbyists in the state have spent the past seven years on sports tickets for Texas lawmakers.
That may be one reason Powers has gotten such remarkable support from state legislators in his fight with the Board of Regents and chancellor’s office that oversee him.
Some of Powers’ most vigorous defenders have been those lawmakers with an open invitation to the presidential suite on the 50-yard line of the stadium, where they and their spouses enjoy top-shelf liquor while mingling with CEOs and other members of their political clique.
Since 2005, lobbyists around Texas have given away sporting tickets worth up to $192,000 to lawmakers, state employees and their families, according to a report last month in the San Antonio Express-News.
Powers can beat that in one season. Just for the 2010 football season, his office got a $174,000 invoice for football tickets — $150,000 for the presidential suite and $24,000 for 60 tickets to each home game.
His office spends another $3,500 or so each week on food and drink, plus two bartenders to keep the Grey Goose and Maker’s Mark flowing. The food’s not fancy, but it is expensive: $166 for a nacho bar; $160 to $240 for popcorn, most of it thrown out.
To say the invitations are highly prized would be an understatement. Powers’ office has to start organizing the hundreds of invitations months beforehand. Most invitees get tickets to sit in the stands at a game or two.
Select guests get to choose from among several games, while others are allowed to choose the best match-ups. A still more select group can choose multiple games, including tickets to the Red River Rivalry against Oklahoma in Dallas.
Then there’s the elite group — the officials invited to every game, no advance reservations needed. They get a call two weeks before every home game to see if they’ll be coming.
In 2010, this group consisted of Gov. Rick Perry and state House Speaker Joe Straus, who didn’t come, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who came multiple times.
Six state lawmakers, all of whom have been chairmen or vice-chairs of education committees, got the same treatment: Sens. Kirk Watson and Judith Zaffirini, then-Sen. Florence Shapiro, Reps. Dan Branch and Geanie Morrison and then-Rep. Rob Eissler.
Morrison is the only one of those people still in office that hasn’t taken a public position on the ongoing dispute between Powers and the Board of Regents.
Dewhurst, Straus, Watson, Zaffirini and Branch have all publicly backed Powers in the impeachment effort against Hall, a persistent critic of the UT president and those legislators who trade on his favor. All but Straus are frequent guests.
In 2011, the state lawmakers to get invited to “any and all home games” were Watson, Zaffirini, Branch, Eissler, Shapiro and Rep. Jim Pitts, the appropriations committee chairman who has led the charge to impeach Hall.
In 2012, state Sen. Kel Seliger often joined the party. He, too, has also been a fierce critic of Hall.
It’s in Powers’ interest to keep the lawmakers happy, and the lawmakers have reasons of their own to keep Powers happy, but this back-scratching and expenditure serves no known public interest.
Georgia recognized that recently, when it passed a law banning lobbyists (including university representatives) from giving out free tickets to sporting events. The law goes into effect Jan. 1.
The luxury suite records have emerged after multiple interested parties obtained them through Texas Public Information Act requests. A source provided more than 2,000 pages of records to Watchdog.org last month; Empower Texans published a similar set of documents last week.
The records show how Powers gains influence with legislators and other powerful figures. One fascinating 2011 email from Vice Chancellor Randa Safady to Nancy Brazzil, who is Powers’ right hand, suggests Powers could expect consistently favorable coverage from the Dallas Morning News.
Robert Decherd, who retired last month as chairman and CEO of A.H. Belo Corporation, publisher of the Dallas daily, had asked Safady about getting an invitation for his family to the presidential suite for the Kansas game that year. Safady passed along the request, adding that “Robert said he wanted to give Bill his full support for staying the course with what is right for UT.”
“Staying the course,” in this case, meant resisting a number of reforms known as the “seven breakthrough solutions,” which were supported by Perry, entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The records also show Powers knows how to reward his allies. For example, Houston attorney John Beckworth was included in the exclusive group invited to the presidential suite for all home games plus Oklahoma for the 2011 season. This past year, while Beckworth was president of the Longhorns’ massive alumni group, the Texas Exes, he emailed its members an article attacking Hall. The group’s magazine ran plenty of slanted coverage.
This summer, Beckworth was named associate dean of the UT law school.
Beckworth was also invited to the suite for the 2011 Holiday Bowl in San Diego. An email from a staffer to Brazzil lists just three other people who were “Suite worthy.” These included Watson, the loyal state senator, and Natalie Butler, the student body president who made news with an exceptionally snotty letter about a fact-finding trip to Arizona State University she had taken with a group of regents, for which the chancellor later apologized.
Butler wrote that there “are important reasons I did not go to ASU and why I left and chose to attend The University of Texas at Austin. I wanted to be challenged, to grow intellectually, and to go to a school were (sic) I would be surrounded by students with similar drive. I knew that I would find none of these things at ASU.”
If you defend the status quo, you’re welcome at the party.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected]