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UT admissions: Straus, Branch, Pitts pulled strings

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Part 18 of 30 in the series Trouble in Texas

STRAUS: Joe Straus and two of his lieutenants were the most avid correspondents discovered in an investigation into string-pulling in admissions at the University of Texas.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

HOUSTON — Speaker Joe Straus and two of his top lieutenants in the Texas House, Reps. Dan Branch and Jim Pitts, sent more letters to the president of the University of Texas on behalf of applicants than anyone else whose correspondence was included in a recent inquiry into admissions favoritism.

Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s office recently reviewed 86 “recommendation” letters, almost all of them from lawmakers, sent to UT President Bill Powers instead of through the proper channels.

The inquiry wasn’t exhaustive — those were just the letters uncovered by UT Regent Wallace Hall. Lawmakers launched impeachment proceedings against Hall last June, just two weeks after he began investigating whether the university was giving special treatment to the friends and family of lawmakers.

Pitts and Branch led the successful charge three months earlier, in March 2013, to block the Board of Regents from investigating an off-the-books pay scandal at UT’s law school. Straus, as speaker, authorized impeachment proceedings.

Branch is now running for state attorney general. Pitts, the Appropriations Committee chairman, announced his retirement after he admitted pulling strings to help his son get into UT’s law school.

Each of them wrote seven letters to Powers on behalf of applicants. Other avid correspondents included state Sen. Eddie Lucio, with five letters, state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, with six, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, whose total is now four, with three already public knowledge.

Cigarroa’s inquiry found evidence the letters were highly effective. A “disproportionately high number of applicants were admitted notwithstanding the fact that most of the legislator letters did not contain any significant substantive information about the applicant,” the report concluded. In fact, “in more than one-half of them, there is no evidence that the author of the letter even knows the student, much less knows him or her well.”

Undergraduate applicants backed by a legislator got into UT at a rate of 58.7 percent, while the acceptance rate for all Texas applicants for non-automatic admission was 15.8 percent between 2009 and 2013.

Although the inquiry was meant to determine whether there were grounds for a full investigation, university officials, led by Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster, decided to let the matter drop.

“We need an investigation,” state Sen. Dan Patrick said Tuesday night during a debate with his rival for lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst. “This is a potentially huge scandal in the making. If students who should have earned the right to go to the University of Texas Law School were denied a seat — and many are, because there are only so many seats — because a legislator’s friend, a donor’s child, or a legislator’s child or relative got in ahead of them with lower scores, that is wrong. And Wallace Hall should not be impeached because he looked at that issue.”

Pitts and Branch are members of the “Gang of 11” Republicans who joined with Democrats in a coup that brought Straus to power, and were later rewarded with committee chairmanships. The gang wrote 25 of the letters that turned up in the survey.

All seven of the letters from Branch were written in the month after Straus took power. Since then, as the chairman of the Higher Education Committee, Branch has grown closer to Powers. He’s a frequent guest in Powers’ luxury suite at football games. Powers has taken the university’s private jet to a dinner in Dallas he hosted for Branch, even bringing two of Branch’s children, who were then undergrads at UT. Branch’s son Spencer now works at the University of Texas Investment Management Company.

Branch was asked earlier this month whether, as a chairman, he ever interceded behind the scenes on behalf of an applicant, which he first denied and then clarified.

“Once I became Chair of Higher Ed, I have backed away from that and told people I don’t write letters of recommendation — even my own constituents. So I’ve tried to push away from that because I don’t want to create an appearance issue,” he said.

Earlier this week, Breitbart Texas got ahold of one those seven letters, which was dated after he became chairman, and called him out on it.

Three of the letters from Pitts concern applications to UT’s law school, but all three were written after his son already had enrolled in the program. Pitts admitted last fall that he intervened on his son Ryan’s behalf. Ryan’s LSAT scores were below UT standards, and he has since struggled to pass the bar exam.

The legislative committee pursuing Hall’s impeachment has argued that Hall must have leaked confidential information about Ryan Pitts to a reporter from National Review, despite that reporter’s denials. Now it appears Hall never had Ryan Pitts’ information.

Texas Democrat U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, whose former chief of staff’s struggles with the bar exam were recently disclosed, wrote three letters in the sample.

State Sens. John Carona and Kel Seliger, both of whom had children attend UT Law, wrote letters on behalf of others. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, whose midnight text message threat to “take the wood to Wallace Hall” was disclosed during a campaign event Tuesday, wrote a recommendation, too. State Sen. John Whitmire, a staunch defender of Powers, wrote two letters.

Rep. Ferdinand “Trey” Fischer, who has been Hall’s most aggressive antagonist on the impeachment committee, wrote a two-page recommendation, requested a sit-down meeting to discuss it, and threw in a personal note to Powers, adding, “I look forward to our visit.”

Former state Rep. Jim Dunnam wrote three letters, including one insisting that the candidate’s “LSAT score should not be held against him.”

The chancellor’s inquiry found that four of the 16 law school applicants blessed with legislative recommendations were admitted despite grades and Law School Admission Test Scores “well below” and “far below” the school’s standards.

A Watchdog.org investigation found dozens of other underwhelming UT Law students connected to political power.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to a dinner that Powers hosted for Branch in 2010 as a fundraiser.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion

Part of 30 in the series Trouble in Texas
  1. Texas’ Rep. Pitts announces retirement after improper influence story
  2. University of Texas regents show support for Wallace Hall
  3. Case against UT regent Wallace Hall is a sham — here’s proof
  4. Texas senator got $477k for supposed ‘cameo’ appearance in Wallace Hall lawsuit
  5. Lawmaker admits pulling strings on UT admissions
  6. Trustee accused of crime for rejecting dodgy accounting
  7. Longhorns: Senator used clout in UT law school admissions
  8. Children of Texas lawmakers get into UT School of Law, but struggle to pass bar exam
  9. Chancellor is probing favoritism in UT admissions
  10. UT report: Charge against Hall is legally ‘absurd’
  11. Attorney in UT case hides six-figure charges despite terms of contract
  12. University of Texas clout scandal grows as new e-mails surface
  13. Four more get into UT Law despite low LSATs
  14. Reports on UT favoritism, impeachment expected soon
  15. Attorney: Secret tape covered up by lawmakers proves regent’s innocence
  16. Dozens of UT Law’s least qualified students are connected politically
  17. University of Texas uncovers admissions corruption, halts investigation
  18. UT admissions: Straus, Branch, Pitts pulled strings
  19. Who got the 128? UT Law admits students with bad LSAT scores
  20. Patrick’s win may doom Hall impeachment effort
  21. Chancellor promises complete investigation of UT admissions
  22. Board to decide UT president’s fate Thursday
  23. Texas politicians smarten up, ditch UT pres this time around
  24. Tribune story may have doomed UT’s Powers
  25. Academics condone the privilege they denounce
  26. Three essential stories on the UT admissions scandal
  27. Texas AG Greg Abbott embraces Roe v. Wade
  28. Roe v. Wade is AG’s new pretext for blocking Texas law school investigation
  29. Two UT regents pressed for records destruction
  30. New crime invented for Hall: assisted guesswork

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Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org. He also writes a weekly column on politics for The American Spectator. He was formerly a reporter and editor for The Orange County Register in California and a reporter at The Hill in Washington, D.C. His work has been published by Fox News, Reason, The Federalist, Human Events, and other publications. He is a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and a graduate of the University of Southern California. He and his wife Michelle live just outside Houston with their two children.