Zaffirini crony slaps at Watchdog

Wallace Hall

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

HOUSTON — In an op-ed the San Antonio Express-News just published, a lawyer named Richard Leshin accused an unnamed “fringe propaganda machine” of “churning out lies” and “innuendo” about admissions favoritism at the University of Texas.

By that, he certainly means Watchdog.org, as well as Michael Quinn Sullivan’s group Empower Texans, which has also been writing about the issue. Maybe he means to extend it to just about every conservative publication in the country, as they’re all paying attention now. Leshin dismisses the reporting as so much “breathless, incendiary and outlandish propaganda being spewed forth from a fount of special-interest groups.”

He also used sarcastic quotation marks to refer to us “news” outlets.

That was pretty much his argument, and it’s been enough so far. The partisans of UT President Bill Powers decided early to play off the anti-conservative bigotry of much of the media, and it worked, even though nothing about this story has anything to do with traditional right-left disputes.

Only now, the argument comes off as self-parody, given the abundance of evidence for admissions favoritism that has come out over the last month, the evidence Leshin ignores while calling for a “fact-based conversations about real issues.”

Richard Leshin

Leshin ignores every fact I’ve reported save one, as they’re all so self-evidently valid that even mentioning them is a losing proposition for him.

Instead, he feigns outrage that I reported a 59-percent passage rate for UT Law students on the February bar exam.

“The February passage rate was based on just 17 students taking the bar,” Leshin writes. “Is 59 percent accurate? Yes. Does it tell the full picture? No.”

Now, my report linked directly to the raw numbers, and I acknowledged that this small sample “could be a fluke,” but I found the numbers striking, given how poorly they compares with the rest of the state and UT’s own history. I still do, but the issue is peripheral.

The full picture, which Leshin ignores, includes the fact that favored applicants are getting into UT Law with abominable LSAT scores, scores as low as 128, 136, and 137, according to public records I’ve obtained. (These are scores in the bottom 10 percent; most UT students come from the top 10 percent.) I’ve found at least 18 UT Law students who would have been longshots at the worst accredited law schools in the country.

Dozens of politically connected UT Law students are failing the bar repeatedly, including three children of current lawmakers, not to mention lobbyists, their children, chiefs of staff, legislative directors, children of big political donors, and more.

One of those three is Carlos Zaffirini, Jr., son of state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who has repeatedly pulled strings on behalf of applicants.

That’s how Leshin figures in this, not just as the “former president of the Texas Exes and a founding member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education,” as the Express-News identified him. Leshin is a close associate of Zaffirini and her husband Carlos, an attorney and Laredo power player.

In at least two cases, Leshin has teamed up with Carlos Zaffirini to have wealthy old people later diagnosed with dementia sign legal documents turning over control of their estates and affairs to Zaffirini or his associates or clients.

In 2011, Zaffirini was representing the fourth wife of Carlos Y. Benavides, Jr., and called in Leshin, who is an estate planner, to draft a new will, power of attorney, and other legal documents for Benavides to sign. Leshin met with the fourth wife, then introduced himself to Benavides and got him to sign the documents. The next year, a trial judge threw Leshin off the case, ruling that he had no authority to represent Benavides.

A psychologist and a psychiatrist testified that Benavides had been “severely to profoundly impaired” by Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease at the time Leshin gave him the documents, leaving him with the “cognitive function… of a two-year-old.”

Leshin played a key role drawing up documents in another case, where the Zaffirinis have tried to disinherit and cut off support to a woman named Rocio Guerra, who is the heiress of a $150 million fortune her mother and childless aunt bequeathed her. The Zaffirinis have control of the estates, thanks to various wills, powers of attorney and business partnership documents the elderly sisters signed between August 2006 and August 2007. According to court filings, the aunt was diagnosed with dementia in January 2007 and the mother was showing clear signs of it, yet they continued to sign important documents transferring control.

Leshin’s allegiances aside, there’s Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s own report into admissions favoritism.

Leshin cites a few favorable stray phrases that Cigarroa allowed a UT official to tack on, but he ignores all of the facts in the report, as well as all of its conclusions unfavorable to him.

You can read the report here, or this take from Jim Schutze of the left-leaning Dallas Observer, on the “basic bottom line” of the report:

“The UT system conducted its own investigation of Hall’s accusations and Cassidy’s reporting. First, they found that specific allegations brought forward by Hall as a regent and by Cassidy at Watchdog were valid.

“The university looked at cases in which students with low test scores got into UT Law School anyway after key legislators wrote letters saying basically that they knew the student and wanted him or her admitted, bad scores be damned.

“The university’s own report says: ‘Given … the fact that some interviewees indicated that influential recommendations outside the prescribed process do occasionally impact admissions decisions, it is not unreasonable to conclude that these letters of recommendation influenced the admissions decisions for some or all of these applicants.’”

My take is that the chancellor’s office shined a light at one spot, saw dozens of cockroaches scurry, and decided not to look any more. I’ve shined a light at two more spots, and have seen dozens more scurry.

You can conclude, if you want, that you haven’t found any evidence of a “systematic, structured or centralized” infestation. You can even promise, as Board of Regents chairman Paul Foster did, to implement “best practices,” maybe stop leaving food out.

Or you can call pest control.

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

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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