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Pay-to-play scandal involves UT dean, Texas Exes

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Part 46 of 72 in the series Trouble in Texas
AP file photo

BESTIES: The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of Longhorn insiders established to maintain the status quo at the University of Texas, and the Texas Exes alumni association often loop in on message coordination emails from UT President Bill Powers’ PR staff.


By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

Supporters of University of Texas President Bill Powers have for months worked mightily to deny or to marginalize evidence lawmakers were pulling strings to get unqualified students admitted to the university.

A new trove of public records obtained by Watchdog.org demonstrates that many of Powers’ most vocal defenders — key alumni association members, an education coalition, politicians and witnesses involved in a series of impeachment hearings — have been involved in subverting UT’s admissions process.

The records also show the Texas Exes alumni association and the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education were, in effect, two more arms of Powers’ public relations team.

The emails were first obtained but not published by Tony McDonald, legal counsel for the conservative advocacy nonprofit Empower Texans.

On Jan. 31, 2013, Leslie Cedar, CEO of the Texas Exes, wrote to Tom Gilligan, dean of the McCombs School of Business, suggesting Gilligan admit a student who had been rejected in exchange for a $25,000 donation, according to one of the emails.

Tom Gilligan, dean of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, was willing to admit a connected student in exchange for a $25,000 donation.

Tom Gilligan, dean of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, was willing to admit a connected student in exchange for a $25,000 donation.

The applicant’s father, apparently, “hasn’t done much giving but was about to cut you a 25k check,” Cedar wrote. The original request came from Richard Leshin, former president of the Texas Exes, who is close to Powers and to South Texas power brokers Carlos Zaffirini and his wife, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini.

Earlier this year, Leshin, a Corpus Christi lawyer, wrote an op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News denouncing as “outlandish propaganda” reports that UT was admitting subpar students because of political influence.

Gilligan got back to Cedar and Leshin within a half hour, offering a deal in which the applicant “will be admitted into McCombs upon completing several of the prerequisites (e.g. Calculus, Statistics, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics) with good grades (around a 3.5 GPA). Will that work?”

Gilligan declined to comment.

University spokesman Gary Susswein contacted Watchdog.org with a comment (see below) that “every UT Austin undergraduate student” meeting those criteria is eligible to apply to the business school. According to the school’s published records, approximately 70 percent of those applicants are admitted. In this case, Gilligan offered a “contract,” guaranteeing acceptance.

Leshin is a founding member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of Longhorn insiders established to maintain the status quo at UT. Members of the coalition and the alumni association have been quoted in dozens of news articles, creating the appearance of broad support for Powers.

Far from being independent voices, the email records obtained by Watchdog.org find the coalition and the alumni association often looped in on message coordination emails from Powers’ PR staff.

Founding members, in discussion among themselves, are quite open about the fact their group was formed for the express purpose of supporting Powers while blocking reform proposals from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and that their talk of “excellence” is euphemistic “messaging” in defense of the status quo, the records show.

Cedar insists the Texas Exes’ “purpose is truly to be an independent and formidable network of supporters to champion the university.”

Yet in February 2013, when Powers’ hold on his job began to look tenuous, the Office of the President began paying the Texas Exes $100,000 every six months to support email blasts and other communications. The “game plan” for that campaign was coordinated with Powers’ deputy.

That was on top of the $158,600 that Powers had already approved in annual support for traditional alumni association activities, such as networking events, awards and scholarships.

Red McCombs, for whom the business school is named, wrote an email Feb. 6, 2013, to John Beckworth, then the president of the Texas Exes, challenging the first piece sent out as part of the new campaign — an email with the subject line: “A University of the First Class Deserves First-Class Regents.”

“By using Texas Exes letterhead, you indicated that fine organization is supportive,” McCombs wrote in an email to Beckworth. “I doubt that is true. I have been contacted by many today and everyone is contrary and upset by your comments. Please indicate to me how your views became the views of the Texas Exes.”

Beckworth and the Texas Exes continued to send out pro-Powers emails. Powers rewarded Beckworth by appointing him associate dean of the law school.

The emails also demonstrate this network of influence extended itself into the impeachment of Wallace Hall, a university regent who has challenged insider influence-peddling.

State Rep. Ferdinand “Trey” Fischer, a vocal member of the legislative impeachment committee, met at least three times between 2009 and 2011 with the former dean of UT Law, Larry Sager.

The express purpose of one of those meetings, held in 2009 at the office of Houston trial lawyer and Democratic mega-political donor Steve Mostyn, was “to discuss the law school’s commitment to building a stronger relationship with all (Mexican-American Legislative Caucus) members, and particularly, those who are UT graduates.”

This close relationship with MALC includes admitting state Reps. Richard Peña Raymond and Eddie Rodriguez to the law school, although neither has been able to pass the bar despite repeated attempts.

Fischer has also written directly to Powers on behalf of applicants, although he never disclosed any of this during the impeachment hearings.

In response to a public records request, the director for admissions programs at the law school in August 2013 reported contacts from Zaffirini’s office, and from Machree Gibson, who was president of the Texas Exes in 2012.

The emails also show in early 2013 state Rep. Eric Johnson, another member of the legislative committee who voted against Hall, was also interested in attending a graduate program at UT Law.

Johnson approached Powers assistant Carlos Martinez in December 2012. Martinez arranged a meeting with Dean Ward Farnsworth and an associate dean in February. Johnson, however, is not listed on UT’s student database.

A month after that meeting, the impeachment committee heard testimony from Farnsworth.

This batch of email records includes new lawmaker recommendation letters, but there’s also a 2010 letter from state Rep. Jim Pitts to Powers recommending someone for a job that ultimately went to Martinez.

Powers’ defenders have argued that letters of recommendation sent directly to the president are common, and even regents have sent them. The email records include recommendations from two Powers allies who’ve served on the board, although not during their time on the board.

Steve Hicks wrote a recommendation letter to Powers in January 2009, a month before he was appointed to the board.

Scott Caven, a regent from 2003 to 2009 critical in testimony against Hall, tried to pull strings with Gilligan, the dean of the business school, in 2010 and 2013.

Caven’s 2010 email refers to an MBA candidate and is mostly redacted. His 2013 email, however, regards a freshman for whom Caven urges Gilligan to “consider her under the more holistic review urged by Justice O’Connor,” because of her unimpressive qualifications.

Caven wrote Gilligan a month later after her admission thanking him for “ensuring that her application got a full review.”

Fischer, Johnson, and Caven all played active roles in a quasi-judicial proceeding against Hall. Yet nobody in the Austin press reported their involvement in the influence scandal and the conflicts it might create.

As late as November, the Houston Chronicle was still reporting unsubstantiated claims that Hall “bullied staff” at UT. Evidence in Hall’s impeachment report consists of a single incident: Hall arguing in an email that an administrator named Kevin Hegarty ought to be punished for inventing and testifying to an incorrect figure that was at the crux of one of the accusations against Hall.

Bullying had been a talking point all along, though. It was one of the points provided to the media and the Powers coalition in an Aug. 8, 2012, email by one of its leading members, Gordon Appleman.

Another member of the coalition using only the initials JS, challenged in an email comment Appleman’s assertion that board members were engaged in the “harassment of employees.”

“Seems like a strong claim,” JS wrote, “to make with no public evidence.”

Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.

Part of 72 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
  31. Texas lawmaker failed to disclose his own clout letter in UT flap
  32. Texas legislator Fischer insists on role in UT investigation
  33. Hutchison pulled strings for friends’ kids and grandkids at UT
  34. Ex-UT Law dean’s credit card bill: $400k in four years
  35. Abbott’s UT picks are pro-affirmative action
  36. Report: University of Texas showed favoritism to thousands
  37. Kroll ignored hundreds of weak UT applications
  38. Billionaire defends UT admissions privileges for ‘leaders’
  39. Weak admissions to University of Texas Law increased after Sager’s ouster
  40. Kroll report takes dig at Watchdog.org
  41. Hicks won’t stop UT’s backdoor admits
  42. Texas governor’s wife was on UT nominee’s payroll
  43. Bill to limit UT oversight clears committee
  44. UT regent blasts speaker for ‘abuse of office’
  45. Texas politician rebuts himself with apparently plagiarized letter
  46. Pay-to-play scandal involves UT dean, Texas Exes
  47. Supreme Court asked to look at UT’s backdoor admissions program
  48. Lawmakers want UT applications shielded from scrutiny
  49. McRaven makes UT scandal his own
  50. An open letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton on the UT cover-up
  51. Chancellor Bill McRaven’s UT cover-up has no defenders
  52. UT’s back door still open, but can’t stay secret, AG rules
  53. Whitewash: Kroll left dozens of bad LSATs out of UT report
  54. McRaven’s defense to Hall lawsuit refuted by own words
  55. Ready for the end of affirmative action?
  56. UT admissions scandal is 10 times bigger than official report
  57. McRaven trolls Dallas Morning News
  58. Powers to get top salary at UT Law
  59. UT sues to block Watchdog access to admissions investigation
  60. UT approves ‘Spinal Tap’ policy for backdoor admissions
  61. Admissions survey: No, UT, everybody doesn’t do it
  62. UT admissions scandal prompts new investigation
  63. Ticket scandal a black mark for UT, DA
  64. Showdown over UT cover-up nears end
  65. McRaven’s rationale for UT cover-up denounced by regents, AG
  66. High court to decide if University of Texas can deep-six investigation
  67. High court hears arguments on whether UT can bury investigation
  68. Testimony by UT contradicts story fed high court
  69. These ‘horns ain’t loyal, McRaven finds
  70. UT’s Hall challenges Abbott over board picks
  71. Texas Supreme Court nullifies rule of law; impunity to reign
  72. The battle for the Kroll records goes on

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Jon Cassidy was a former Houston-based reporter for Watchdog.org.