University of Texas clout scandal grows as new e-mails surface

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

Sen. Judith Zaffirini has tried to pull strings with UT officials for several applicants.

HOUSTON — State Sen. Judith Zaffirini has made headlines twice in recent months for using her clout with University of Texas officials on behalf of well-connected applicants. Those stories reported e-mails that Zaffirini sent Dec. 3, 2010 and March 1, 2013.

Watchdog.org has obtained a third email Zaffirini sent, on Oct. 14, 2012, on behalf of another well-connected applicant, as well as an email from UT board member Steve Hicks on behalf of an applicant to UT’s computer science program.

Unlike letters of recommendation sent through the admissions process, Zaffirini’s emails go over the heads of admissions officials and land straight in the inboxes of UT President Bill Powers and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

After Watchdog.org disclosed the first clout letter and then reported the children of three influential lawmakers had been admitted to UT School of Law despite dubious qualifications, Cigarroa announced an inquiry into admissions favoritism.

None of the emails published so far explicitly mention any sort of quid pro quo, but none need do so, as the recipients all know Zaffirini is the most powerful voice on higher education funding in the Texas Legislature. Even so, in one of the emails, Zaffirini mentions how much funding she’s secured for the university before switching topics to the applicant.

That email, first reported Thursday by the Texas Tribune, wasn’t produced by the university in a recent response to a public records request, although other March 1, 2013, email exchanges between Zaffirini’s and Power’s office regarding the exact same meeting were produced. The omission underscores Regent Wallace Hall’s criticism of the university’s handling of public records requests.

The clout email was distributed to eight members of the UT System Board of Regents recently. Presumably, one of those members leaked it to the Tribune.

The third clout email, just now being published, is from Oct. 14, 2012. Zaffirini wrote Cigarroa and Powers, copying Vice Chancellor Randa Safady and Powers’ right hand, Nancy Brazzil, on behalf of an undergraduate applicant to UT.

It reads:

“Francisco and Bill: Attached is a copy of the letter that I sent to Kedra Ishop, UT admissions director, enthusiastically recommending (name redacted) for admission to UT. He is a truly wonderful young man who ‘bleeds burnt orange,’ and I hope that you will support his admission. Randa and Nancy: Please help! Thanks/Z”

Cigarroa responded, “I thank you so very much for forwarding your letter regarding (name redacted). Your perspectives mean so very much to UT System and I know UT Austin!”

Although he clearly has some idea already, Cigarroa has been looking into whether letters of this sort had much influence on an applicant’s fate. The results of that preliminary inquiry are now available to members of the UT Board of Regents, who will decide whether to launch a full investigation.

So far, that draft report remains confidential, other than Zaffirini clout email No. 2. The Tribune story reporting that email was a surprise to people who have been following this issue closely, as the Tribune has generally ignored the issue of favoritism, instead framing the story as a “witch hunt” against Powers.

But the Tribune’s own credibility, and especially the credibility of its “witch hunt” narrative, have been called into question recently. A former TV news reporter named James Moore published a massive takedown of the Tribune two weeks ago, criticizing the outlet for taking money from scores of companies and people with interests before the Legislature and failing to disclose the amounts.

The story was picked up by the Huffington Post. Last Friday, the Tribune announced it would start publishing amounts it had received from corporate donors. According to its new disclosures, the Tribune’s second biggest all-time corporate contributor is the University of Texas at Austin, with $525,000.

To date, the clearest evidence of favoritism is Watchdog.org’s report that Jeffrey Steven Carona, Carlos Manuel Zaffirini Jr. and James Ryan Pitts – the children, respectively, of state Sen. John Carona, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini and state Rep. Jim Pitts – have failed the Texas bar exam eight times between them.

That’s uncommon for UT law grads, as 256 of the 268 Longhorns sitting for their first try last July passed the exam.

Carona and Zaffirini failed the bar three times each before ultimately passing. Pitts failed the test twice last year, and presumably took the test again last month.

Now that doesn’t prove they weren’t qualified for admission to UT, as you’d need their grades and LSAT scores to say for sure. Watchdog.org did, however, recently obtain LSAT scores for Pitts, and they’re well below UT’s usual standards.

According to information obtained through a public records request, Pitts scored a 155 and a 147 on the test, which is scored on a scale of 120 to 180. Those scores rank in the 64th percentile and 33rd percentile nationwide.

UT generally draws from a higher tier of applicants, with scores in the 25th to 75th percentiles of its class ranging from 163-170.

Zaffirini isn’t the only official who has intervened in the admissions process.

Steve Hicks, a UT System board member who has sided with Powers, wrote to Powers on Feb. 11, 2013, after a UT alum emailed him complaining that his son Christopher was having a hard time with the admissions process.

“Please understand that this is not a request to help him with admission,” Hicks wrote, mindful of the obvious implication. Hicks said he was just concerned about the “process,” although the only procedural issue raised by the letter was that other schools were more interested in Christopher than UT.

On Feb. 25, 2013, Brazzil emailed Powers to ask if he had told Hicks the news that Christopher, the applicant, had been rejected by the computer science and electrical engineering program, and was in line for a spot in general studies.

Three days later, Hicks tried to set up a dinner with Powers and Cigarroa at his house for the week of March 11, 2013. The dinner had to be postponed to March 21, 2013, though, because Powers was flying to the Bahamas with billionaire trial lawyer Joe Jamail for spring break.

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

The post University of Texas clout scandal grows as new e-mails surface appeared first on Watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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