When the dust settled in the University of Illinois clout abuse scandal, not only were the institution’s president and regents fired, but a statewide officeholder, the house speaker, a state senator, a congressman, and two state representatives found themselves in hot water and their political careers in ruins. Texas legislators should pay attention.
The facts in the Illinois case are similar to those coming to light at the University of Texas. Politically connected, though academically unqualified, students were given preferential treatment by the state school. These students gained entry through special, undisclosed processes by which powerful state officials made sure their pals and donors gained access to the state’s most prestigious institution.
Last week we learned that Bill Powers, the president of UT, regularly overruled his admissions department so students from wealthy and politically connected families would gain admission despite substandard – and in a number of cases, abysmal – academic records. Everyone knew what they were doing was wrong; they would hold special meetings to review the applicants and destroy documents along the way – specifically to limit the paper trail.
But clout abuse – which is really just a different way of talking about public officials illegally selling state resources for personal gain – takes several parties to occur, not just the corrupt university president and his staff.
When lawmakers return to the Capitol, they will need to look at each other a tad more suspiciously. Anyone who has served three terms or more, or serves on a committee that touches on the budget, education policy, or in leadership, is a prime suspect in the unraveling case.
The investigation issued last week specifically did not name any names. But there are names. There are sitting members of the Texas House and Texas Senate who abused the power of their office for the gain of their children or donors.
Who are they? We do not know. Yet.
We do know that the speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, empowered State Rep. Dan Flynn of Van to attack the whistleblower who first uncovered the clout abuse. The committee helmed by Flynn behaved in a boorish fashion. Only one lawmaker on it cried foul – repeatedly – through the investigation. All the others used the committee process to intimidate, smear and slander the whistleblower.
We know that former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gave an emotional speech on the floor of the Texas Senate in 2013, decrying allegations being made by the whistleblower of financial malfeasance and clout abuse. We now know all those allegations were true. It was reported that Dewhurst promised to “take the wood” to the whistleblower. And we know Dewhurst was, knowingly or not, covering up for his friend, Bill Powers. Friend? Yes, Dewhurst and his wife took trips to Europe with the Powers’ family. It is likely Dewhurst knows which senators were demanding special treatment.
We know that the chief of staff to UT President Powers, Nancy Brazzil, is close friends with a number of high-ranking bureaucrats in state government. We know she threatened admissions officials to accept unqualified students. She knows the names.
We know the report makes mention of the unusual number of “special” admissions coming from Highland Park. That part of Dallas County was represented until recently by Straus’ childhood friend and political ally Dan Branch. The same Dan Branch who chaired the House Committee on Higher Education, and who was a regular guest in the luxury box owned by the UT president. And the same Dan Branch who was soundly defeated in the Republican primary when he tried to run for Attorney General in 2014.
But there are others involved. A dozen, perhaps? The report doesn’t say.
The names of the legislators trading on their offices will come out, eventually.
The media reaction has been telling. For three years, the Texas press ignored the story or joined in attacking the whistleblower, Wallace Hall. Why? Because he was a Republican appointee of Gov. Rick Perry.
The narrative is changing in the mainstream media. They are realizing that the clout abuse scandal means that they were defending “affirmative action for the advantaged,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education put it on Friday.
At the same time the UT president was telling minority students that there wasn’t enough room for even those in the top–10 percent, he was letting rich white kids connected to state legislators in through a secret backdoor.
How will the names come out? As with everything, there is an easy way or a hard way.
The easy way would be for Speaker Straus to reveal the names. Surely he knows them, since he was defending them so strongly. No doubt they are in his circle of friends, allies and advisors. He could publicly demand that they reveal themselves.
Absent that, comes the hard way. The names are known by the group that did the investigation. That means when the inevitable lawsuits start being filed, the names will be revealed. Any socio-economically challenged kid denied admission despite acceptable grades will no doubt find a lawyer willing to exploit UT for giving a seat to an unqualified rich student.
The hard way means that those names start appearing sometime at the end of 2015 or early 2016. You know, when elections are going on. That’s when every other member of the Texas Legislature will be worrying about what photos exist of them being chummy with the then newly-named clout abusers.
The hard way results in every single legislator who was elected prior to 2012 being under a cloud of suspicion about his or her actions in this unraveling scandal. It is a scandal that won’t begin to recede until names are named.
In 2014, the whistleblower, Wallace Hall, sent an email to the chairman of the UT board of regents. He wrote, “enough has been said about our ‘reputation’ but not enough has been done to preserve our integrity.”
It is time for lawmakers to preserve the integrity of the state by cleaning up the reputation of the Legislature. The hard way or the easy way, the names will be eventually known. It would be better if the legislators responsible simply came clean now.
Michael Quinn Sullivan is the President of Empower Texans and a founding contributor to Breitbart Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MQSullivan.
[Editorial note: Speaker Straus and former Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst are invited to submit a response to this article, if they wish, to be published here on Breitbart Texas.]