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.
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.
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