UT favoritism report produced by hard work, not leaks


MY SOURCE: We had to turn this stack of mailing labels into usable data, and merge it with other databases, a process that was even more boring and difficult than it sounds.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

HOUSTON – I’ve heard a few rumors and seen several online comments to the effect that my story on favoritism in admissions at the University of Texas School of Law Tuesday must have been the product of leaked confidential records.

I’m flattered, in a way, although I suspect the real reason anyone would make such an accusation is to discredit UT Regent Wallace Hall. Rusty Hardin tried that approach in his 2,380-page report, implying Hall had been the source of National Review reporter Kevin Williamson’s discovery that Rep. Jim Pitts pulled strings for his son, despite Williamson’s repeated explanations and denials.

Most of the commenters at the popular legal blog abovethelaw.com were scandalized by the findings, but a few took shots at Hall.

“Wallace Hall released a great deal of FERPA information to his friends in an effort to discredit the UT administration. This is another example of the private student information he leaked illegally,” wrote one.

“Of course, this comes from the unethical investigation of Wallace Hall, who, like many other regents in Texas, ‘earned’ their position by donating to Gov. Perry over the years,” wrote another.

“While I’m disgusted if the implications of this are true, how, pray tell, did watchdog.org get these students’ LSAT scores? Are those FERPA violations I smell,” asked a third.

So let me state for the record: Neither Wallace Hall nor any person associated with him was the source of any of the information in my report.

I obtained the LSAT scores used in the story through a public records request. While I understand the skepticism over that assertion, as the conventional wisdom is that the scores are fully covered by federal privacy law, the conventional wisdom is mistaken. I’ll fully explain how I obtained the LSAT scores in a story I’ll publish soon about this group’s terrible LSAT scores, but I don’t want to scoop myself by giving away my methods.

For now, let’s just say that if anyone thinks those LSAT scores are going to absolve the lawmakers, think again.

Building a database of bar failures and identifying all of UT Law’s double failures was considerably more difficult.

The state Board of Law Examiners publishes a list of everyone who passes the two bar exams administered every year, in February and July. Since 2010, it has also kept a digital record of everyone who sat for the exam. You can compare one to the other and produce a list of failures.

But for the period of 2006 to 2009, the only records the BLE kept for its test-takers was an eight-inch stack of mailing labels. It cost almost $1,000 to get those reprinted, shipped, converted to digital, and then it took data specialist Earl Glynn more than a week to extract all the data from those files and make it usable.

Owing to different spellings, use of middle names or initials, hyphenations, typos and that sort of thing, all of the names had to be compared manually, after Glynn first matched them up with a script.

He built a list of everyone in Texas who’d failed the bar in that time, along with their number of failures.

Then we had to cross reference this against a roster of students who had enrolled at UT Law (with alternate spellings again requiring careful review).

A few folks who married during this time and took a new last name might well have escaped our review, although we did detect others.

We were just getting started. My job then was to take the 90 names of people who failed the bar twice, along with a handful of others we were curious about, and build out dossiers on each of them, starting with public records profiles from LexisNexis.

I found who their parents were, where they worked, who gave money to politicians. Each name on the list took anywhere from 30 minutes to four or five hours to research.

There’s plenty more I could do. A review of donations made by parental employers would surely turn up more connections — some of them valid, some of them false positives — but they’d be another degree removed from the connections I reported Tuesday.

While folks may think journalists spend a lot of time in secret meetings with sources, the truth is the dullest story of all is usually the one about how the reporter got his story. The only reason I’m boring you with it here is to knock down the false rumors.

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

Category: Commentary, Texas, admissions, computer assisted reporting, leaks, NICAR, reporting techniques, UT favoritism