You already know how Greg Abbott rolls. Our brand-new so-called conservative (small government, close to the people) governor wants to make it illegal for Texans to pass their own local close-to-the-people laws on fracking, plastic bags or tree cutting -- matters he thinks are better left in the hands of the mega-corporations that know how to do all that stuff.
So I wanted to add my own two bits to the Abbott saga: Now he's trying to appoint two regents to the University of Texas system who were the major bad guys in the backdoor admissions and funny money findings in the UT-Austin scandal. Based on their answers during a brutal grilling before a Senate confirmation committee two weeks ago, it's pretty clear their first order of business on the board of regents will be destroying evidence of past sins and shutting off access to information in the future.
The pair, R. Steven Hicks and David Beck, were both deeply involved in matters at the heart of findings of favoritism and good-old-boy financial self-dealing at UT in the recently released investigation by Kroll International, a private investigations company. We have talked here about the Kroll report. Commissioned after an in-house investigation was deemed inadequate, the company's report published February 6 found a history of backdoor under-the-radar admissions to the law school for unqualified candidates.
The Kroll report (a copy is at the bottom of this article) also unearthed details of a secret program of six-figure bonuses shoveled to law school faculty from a private foundation in a scheme that involved what some litigants have argued were violations of state and federal law.
Beck, a lawyer and one of Abbott's picks for the board of regents, is a former president of the money-shoveling foundation. He told a Texas Senate confirmations committee two weeks ago that he had no idea the secret bonus program he himself had overseen for seven years was a secret. He said people were supposed to be told about it and that any failure to do so must have been a staff oversight. This is in spite of lengthy discussions in the minutes of the money-shoveling foundation -- at meetings attended by Beck -- of the wisdom of keeping aspects of the program secret or revealing all of it (decision: keep it secret).
An incredulous senator on the panel questioning Beck pointed out that investigators had demanded documents from Beck himself concerning an under-the-radar gift of $115,000 that the money-shoveling foundation made to William Powers, now president of UT-Austin. According to the Kroll report, Beck never turned over the documents. Beck told the committee two weeks ago that he never got the request. Darn. Probably the staff's fault.
Hicks, brother of Dallas billionaire investor Tom Hicks and an incumbent on the board of regents, was an even tougher swallow for some members of the committee, given his role in trying to head off and suppress the investigations that led to the Kroll report.
State Senator Konni Burton, a Tarrant County Republican, asked Hicks painfully pointed questions about his role in the UT Law School funny-money and sub-par admissions scandals. The money-shoveling scheme was called the "Forgivable Loan Program," a forgivable loan being a loan where the lender hands you the money and then says immediately, "I forgive you," so you don't ever have to pay it back. Heard of that? In her questions of Hicks, Burton referred to one of the more notorious shoveling operations -- half a million dollars that law school Dean Larry Sager shoveled to himself, then forgave himself for. When that one was un-shoveled, Sager was forced to step down as dean, and the unraveling began.
Burton said to Hicks: "You chose to vote against the majority of other members of the board of regents when they saw fit to look further into the Forgivable Loan Program that caused Dean Sager to be terminated. Furthermore you chose to question your fellow regents' motives in asking further questions about the Forgivable Loan Program. Knowing what we know now, how do you justify this in relation to your mission as a member of the UT board of regents?"
In a rambling answer, Hicks said he thought the board of regents had already done enough by commissioning the internal report (the one later abandoned by the board as compromised and unreliable).
"Well, we had gotten a report from our internal general counsel that laid out the problems," Hicks said. "So I was satisfied that we had gotten to the bottom of the problem."
Maybe that's all water over the dam by now. What's disconcerting for days and months ahead -- should these two get full Senate confirmation later this week -- is the agenda they will bring to the next board of regents. Before the committee two weeks ago, Hicks was asked repeatedly about a measure he is rumored to favor that would forbid individual members of the board of regents from demanding documents from UT System staff. The Kroll report and a host of other revelations all came directly out of a one-man investigation carried out by UT Regent Wallace Hall of Dallas. Some members of the committee pressed Hicks hard to commit to never seeking a measure that would impair the ability of future regents to carry out investigations like the one Hall did.
But Hicks would not commit. He offered blandishments about the importance of "transparency" -- everybody's for transparency these days -- but then he kept coming back to the same theme: Regents, in his view, don't need to be going around just sticking their noses into things, stirring up trouble by demanding documents from the staff. "To me," Hicks said, "it's not about investigating or mandating. It's a more cooperative area of how we can provide service and give them the resources to be successful."
The findings in the Kroll report were a big black eye for powerful members of the Legislature who had been shoe-horning their own kids and kids of friends into UT Law School. And they were black-eyes, too, for a bunch of rich powerful lawyers around the state who had been shoveling money through that private foundation. Needless to say, the legislators and the lawyers have not been pressing for any kind of clean-up based on the report, since they are the ones who would have to get cleaned up.
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The current chancellor over the whole UT system, Admiral William McRaven, announced the minute the report came out that he would not be punishing anyone based on its findings.
Now, the fact that Abbott has settled on these two birds, Hicks and Beck, as his candidates for the next board of regents should tell us all we need to know. It's going to be all Austin good-old-boys, all day long, 352 days a year from here on out. But I think we were already beginning to see that with the anti-local legislation initiative. Yeah, these people are true conservatives. They truly intend to conserve their gravy train.