UT’s Hall challenges Abbott over board picks

UT’s Hall challenges Abbott over board picks

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By Jon Cassidy  /   January 24, 2017

Governor Greg Abbott

By nominating three people connected to the University of Texas admissions scandal to serve on its board, Gov. Greg Abbott is asking the state Senate to endorse corruption.

Wallace Hall, a regent at the university, is asking the Senate to wait for a decision from the state Supreme Court on whether UT is accountable to anyone but its employees.

The issue is whether the Senate should hurry to confirm replacements for Hall and regents Brenda Pejovich and Alex Cranberg, or wait until later in the Legislative session.

The regents may continue to serve after their terms end Feb. 1 until their replacements are confirmed, but the real issue is whether Hall will have time to review records of an investigation into admissions corruption.

Hall sued UT Chancellor Bill McRaven in 2015 to force him to turn over the records. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on Jan. 11, but the issue would become moot if Hall is replaced before the court rules.

That would delay for years any chance of setting UT straight on the limits of its own authority. UT claims the right as an institution to decide what information to share with board members, and also pretends to have greater authority than the Central Intelligence Agency to classify its own records.

Even with a favorable ruling, Hall would likely need several weeks just to skim through the hundreds of thousands of pages assembled by Kroll Associates, the investigator.

In a statement Tuesday, Hall challenged Abbott’s haste.

“Why rush, unless there is a preference to preempt the Supreme Court in a ruling Texans have waited years to obtain?” Hall asked. “Governor Abbott can wait for the court and we can all live by the new standards it will set, or he can push the Senate to preempt the court and kill any opportunity for reform.”

There is no mistaking Abbott’s intent. His past decisions in the matter — from appointing three UT cronies two years ago, to slow-playing an investigation into UT Law as attorney general, to issuing public records decisions that shielded the university from accountability — have already put him on the side of Austin establishment interests that view UT as their private club.

The three names Abbott put forward this week as potential members of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System all have ties, either direct or indirect, to the corrupt admissions practices that cost former UT President Bill Powers his job.

They are former state Sen. Kevin Eltife, former UT board member Janiece Longoria and Rad Weaver, a protégé of San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs, whose name is on the UT business school.

It was a letter from Abbott nominee Kevin Eltife to Powers that first aroused Hall’s suspicion about politicians pulling strings with Powers. And it was Eltife, a state senator at the time, who first organized the Senate in defense of Powers four years ago.

Eltife’s Feb. 2013 resolution in support of Powers was approved by the entire Senate. That day, senator after senator took to the microphone with words of praise whose ironic meaning would become clear much later, when the evidence of political influence in admissions decisions came to light.

“You have to respond to a whole host of interests, and you have done that well,” state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, told Powers.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, praised Powers’ eagerness to acquire political capital.

“We can take your word to the bank. Not only can we take your word to the bank, we can use it as collateral,” West said.

“I want to thank you for leading the university with honesty and integrity,” Eltife told Powers. “And thank you for allowing us to honor you here today.”

Longoria is a member of the UT Law School Foundation that bears responsibility for corrupting Powers. Starting when Powers was dean of the law school, the foundation paid Powers at least $635,918 through an illegal off-the-books compensation program since cancelled.

At the same time, Powers was admitting students with impossibly low admissions test scores of 128, 137 and 136 — “the very lowest scores you can get and still be alive,” as state Sen. Van Taylor put it two years ago.

Meanwhile, foundation members were strikingly successful at getting their own children into UT Law.

If you got past the claims of privacy, would you find the same last names giving money, scoring poorly, and getting admitted? That is, was this a quid pro quo? The Attorney General’s Office under Abbott investigated that issue, but released a final report that didn’t even address the question.

Are any of the five Longorias who’ve gone through UT Law in recent years related to Abbott’s nominee? We don’t know that either.

Yet Longoria is the second pick that Abbott has made from the UT Law Foundation.

The third pick, Weaver, is a protégé of McCombs, who took him under his wing as a teenager after his father died.

Even the most fervent Powers supporters joke about McCombs’ tendency to throw his weight around.

When the Kroll report came out, McCombs wrote a letter to the editor of one newspaper denouncing “ridiculous media reports” that questioned the propriety of string-pulling.

While the Kroll report didn’t name names, if it had, the name “McCombs” would be atop any list of candidates to make an appearance in this passage of the Kroll report:

(Then-business school Dean Thomas) Gilligan noted that he sometimes receives calls from a Regent who is a big supporter of McCombs, recommending certain applicants. But Gilligan stated that there is never any undue pressure or influence exerted. Likewise, a prominent alumnus and financial contributor frequently calls Gilligan to promote particular candidates. Many of those applicants have been denied, and the alumnus and Gilligan have had many blunt and candid discussions concerning some of the recommendations. As stated by Gilligan, this person ‘cares about the school and his heart is in the right place’ even if some of his recommended candidates are deemed not sufficiently qualified by the Admissions Committee. The alumnus does not attempt to override or pressure different results.

Since Weaver attended McCombs himself, he ought to be asked about this by the Nominations Committee.

However, the question here isn’t about the qualifications of the nominees themselves. It’s about the integrity of the Senate, about the backbone of each senator, and their willingness to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing.

Four years ago, all 31 members of the Senate supported Eltife’s resolution, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tearfully cheering them on. But most of them didn’t know what these senators know.

In February 2015, a report by Kroll Associates found a long history of UT board members using their position to “put pressure on the Admissions Office to admit certain applicants.”

An admissions officer told investigators that a regent in years past had sent a note demanding that “every graduate of XXX High School should be admitted into UT.” The president who tolerated that was invited by McRaven to recommend a new policy ratifying the practice of cash-for-admissions.

This board approved that policy. Members of the current board have gotten involved in hundreds of applications, Kroll found, some to the extent of demanding admission for family members.

Yet the board has never discussed this publicly. It has never insisted that Kroll provide the final report called for in its contract — one that names names. None of the members have demanded that their colleagues step forward or resign.

Most importantly, the board has never asked to see the Kroll papers, and has tried to obstruct Hall from seeing them himself. In other words, the board itself is the problem. It’s not just complicit; it’s guilty.

Since the board has failed to exercise its oversight of the University of Texas, the Senate could decide to exercise some oversight itself. The Senate Nominations Committee ought to demand that UT System turn over the disk containing all of the Kroll papers.

In particular, the committee should demand the Kroll papers before confirming anybody to the board.

UT would surely fuss and insist that federal privacy law prevented it, but UT would be wrong. Congress has no direct authority over records policy at state universities, as the state Supreme Court should make clear in its ruling in Hall v. McRaven.

But the Senate doesn’t have to leave Hall to address the problem alone in his few remaining weeks.

Nominations Committee Chairman Brian Birdwell knows the board is a problem. Two years ago, nominee Steve Hicks told the Nominations Committee he wouldn’t oppose Hall’s request for more information, then Hicks turned around and did exactly that.

Birdwell said then that he wanted to ensure “there is no continued abuse” in the “lame-duck” period before Powers finally stepped down in July 2015, but Powers went ahead and admitted another class of privileged applicants through his backdoor, with McRaven’s approval.

There are other potential abuses mentioned in the Kroll papers that weren’t even investigated.

As Hall put it, “It will be unfortunate if pressure by Governor Abbott preempts a ruling by the justices that could support pro-reform practices in our state institutions.”

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