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Lawmaker admits pulling strings on UT admissions

By   /   October 23, 2013  /   No Comments

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WHAT’S THAT? UT regent Wallace Hall is facing impeachment for asking too many questions.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

AUSTIN — Pitts admits it.

Jim Pitts, chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, said he routinely goes over the head of the Law School Admissions Council and intervenes directly with the dean of the law school and the university’s president, Bill Powers, on behalf of candidates for admission to the University of Texas System.

Pitts is also one of the men leading the charge to impeach Wallace Hall, a university regent. Pitts said he wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of his son, Ryan, who recently graduated from the school.

“The letter I wrote for my son was pretty much a form letter,” Pitts told a committee that exists to scrape together some sort of case against Hall. Pitts had told the press about the letter, but he did not say whether it went to the Admissions Council — where recommendations are supposed to go — or to somebody higher up who could pull strings. Where did he send the “form letters?” we asked Pitts as he left the hearing room at the Capitol Extension on Tuesday.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: State Rep. Jim Pitts admits that he regularly writes UT President Bill Powers on behalf of favored candidates.

He answered frankly — To the dean of the law school with a copy to Powers.

“That’s just what I do,” he said. How many others are writing similar letters to influence admissions decisions outside of the proper channels? The answer will require records to be opened, but lots of lawmakers are on the side of keeping them closed, to the point of impeaching the man who’s pushing for transparency. Just one member of the committee – Rep. Charles Perry – is on Hall’s side.

That Hall leaked confidential information is one of the three principal charges against him, yet his accusers have produced little to support their findings. Hall also is accused of omitting information from an appointment application and for submitting unduly numerous and burdensome requests for public records.

Ryan Pitts, Jim Pitts’ son, is part of the debate only because his father read about an unnamed state representative who pulled strings to get an unqualified student into graduate school. Jim Pitts assumed that student was Ryan.

Watchdog.org is aware that children of a half-dozen state legislators have gone to the UT Law School in recent years, yet Pitts was allowed to accuse Hall of violating privacy law based on an assumption.

He was not just allowed but also encouraged by the committee’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, who asked, “Was it public statements of Regent Hall that made you feel…” his privacy had been violated, “was it your assumption that…” Hall was behind it, “was it your concern that he had access” to sensitive information.

This proceeding is supposed to be a sort of investigation, but it’s apparently the sort in which $300-an-hour-lawyers gather feelings, assumptions and concerns rather than facts.

“It is my belief that not only were my son’s federal privacy rights violated, but probably every student at UT,” Pitts told the committee. “Mr. Hall used information that he obtained and went to third parties,” Pitts said.

Hall’s side isn’t allowed to cross-examine a witness, so the statement was allowed to stand, as were others, such as Rep. Ferdinand “Trey” Fischer’s assertion that Hall never researched scandals affecting other universities in the system. Pitts finished his testimony with a new bit of information: “It’s my understanding that Mr. Hall has had people write letters for his son,” who was admitted to UT School of Law.

Nobody pressed him to say whether those letters were anything other than standard recommendations sent to the Admissions Council. That information could have come from one place — a source at UT sharing private educational records, the sanctity of which Pitts spent all morning proclaiming.

Pitts testified Tuesday he decided to seek Hall’s ouster when the UT System rejected an in-house investigation into a secret forgivable loan program at the law school. Dean Larry Sager granted himself a $500,000 “forgivable loan,” approved and funded by the quasi-private UT Law School Foundation, the discovery of which led to his resignation.

Barry Burgdorf, who was then general counsel for the UT System, conducted a cursory investigation into the matter and produced a report early this year absolving Powers of any wrongdoing. The trustees rejected the report as a whitewash, voting 4-3 to conduct a new investigation. Burgdorf was allowed to resign.

It was Hall’s refusal to accept Burgdorf’s report, which was heavily based on interviews with Powers, that led Pitts to seek Hall’s ouster. “That was the day I decided enough was enough,” Pitts said. Burgdorf has been subpoenaed to testify Wednesday.

Carol Longoria, the UT attorney who handles public records requests, and Kevin Hegarty, UT’s chief financial officer and custodian of records, were called as witnesses Tuesday. Hegarty was brought in to bolster the case that Hall’s requests for public records have been improper and to suggest information shared with Hall may in itself have been a violation of law. He was gutted in one swipe by Perry, who pressed Hegarty on his responsibilities as gatekeeper of records.

“If there’s anything out there that should not have been released and is out there, any of that would lie on the fact that the gatekeeper let one get by,” Perry said. “I disagree,” Hegarty said. “I was told that I have no authority to withhold information from a regent.”

Despite that lack of authority, Hegarty has spent nearly a year dragging his feet and giving the Chancellor’s office one excuse after another about why it can’t disclose various records, reaching the point of flat-out defiance by August.

“I was told an individual regent has access to whatever he wants as long as the law does not specifically prohibit it,” Hegarty said. That’s because the regents are not outside the university system, but rather are the highest authority overseeing that system. Yet Hegarty tried to portray Hall as some sort of outsider, telling the committee W-2 information and account numbers were “exposed to Regent Hall.”

Hegarty is wrong about the confidentiality of tax records, too; multiple courts have ruled that “there is no recognized …  federal right to maintain the privacy of tax returns.”

Allan Van Fleet, one of Hall’s lawyers, said Hall is seeking to reform how the university handles requests for public records.

The explanation for the scope of his records requests is simple — He has asked for a copy of every response to a public records request since he joined the board. If the university was simply digitizing its responses, like most other agencies, the need for the infamous 40 boxes of records the university has had to produce for Hall would not exist.

Hall has also insisted on access to the unredacted files gathered for a public records request, which creates work for the university and is thereby part of the case against him. The persecutors tried to portray this as frivolous – “I have no idea why anybody would need the originals of documents,” Pitts said.

But Hegarty gave away the reason — The university routinely refuses to turn over large numbers of relevant documents to the public. The university may have gathered many documents in response to a request, but “a large portion of (them) in many cases were not released to the public,” Hegarty said.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

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Jon Cassidy