Texas Tribune Blows Wallace Hall Story Again

Last week when the Texas attorney general released a long-stalled investigation of a lucrative off-the-books compensation system at the University of Texas Law School, The Texas Tribune, the on-line news service that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the University of Texas System, blew off the report as old news and basically not much to talk about.

A story by Reeve Hamilton said: "The release of the long awaited report, with findings similar to those of an internal review conducted earlier by the University of Texas System, closes a chapter in the long and complicated postmortem on the law school's controversial compensation system."

Well ... not hardly. The AG investigation, launched after the university's internal investigation was tossed out as worthless and the author resigned, directly contradicts key elements of the discredited internal probe. In fact it exposes some fairly ghastly financial hanky-panky that the earlier probe failed to mention.

The private Texas Law School Foundation raises hundreds of millions of dollars in endowment to benefit UT Law School, a public institution. The fund stumbled into controversy in 2011 when Wallace Hall, a University of Texas regent, said he wasn't satisfied with explanations from staff of a half million dollar "forgivable loan" (gift) the fund had given to then law school Dean Lawrence Sager.

The University of Texas System, an umbrella organization over nine state universities and six medical and nursing schools, said it would look into the matter and produce its own report. But after Hall pointed out flaws in that internal report, the attorney general was asked to take a second look.

Jon Cassidy, a reporter for Watchdog.org, spotted this item in the new attorney general's report: while Dean Sager was getting his half million dollar loan from the foundation that he didn't have to pay back, he was also carrying in his pocket a credit card funded by the foundation. His predecessor had run up bills on the same account of $6,000 to $9,000 a year. But Sager pumped out $401,498.29 in credit card expenses, many deemed questionable by some regents, in under four years.

Both reports agreed that Sager, as dean, had almost direct control over the foundation's decisions about whom to reward with forgivable loans and other compensation. The internal report said Sager had done nothing to make a secret of the fund's activities. The attorney general's report said the opposite. It said Sager had gone to lengths to protect details of the program against discovery.

In particular the latter report zeroes in on a lawsuit brought against the dean and the university by a female law school faculty member who claimed the foundation's money was being used as a secret slush fund to reward an all-male insiders club within the faculty in violation of university rules and state and federal law.

An email trail uncovered by the attorney general's investigators shows Sager moving aggressively to settle and pay off that lawsuit. Sager states in the emails that his urgency is spurred by the lawsuit's potential for revealing embarrassing details of the loan program rather than by merits of the suit itself.

The attorney general's report says: "Sager indicated that the matter should be settled, at least in part because he believed if the full picture of the law school's compensation package were to become public it would be very damaging to the law school and the university. Importantly, Dean Sager himself had received a $500,000 forgivable loan that would have been publicly disclosed, although Sager specifically denies this was a concern."

The report chronicles a campaign by Sager soon after taking over as dean to use the fund more aggressively as a means of retaining faculty members whom Sager repeatedly described as the school's "stars." But no one seems to have been a bigger star in this scheme than Sager himself.

Hall, the regent who raised the first alarms in the forgivable loan story, pursued a trail of evidence that led to other dicey situations within the overall university system, including what appears to be the crass peddling of coveted admissions to the law school in exchange for favors from key members of the Legislature. Two reporters, Kevin Williamson at National Review and Cassidy at Watchdog.org, dug into the law school admissions scenario and came up with convincing evidence that the admissions program had been seriously corrupted. Those allegations are now under investigation by a private investigations agency.

Cassidy's and Williamson's reporting was uniformly ignored by reporters and editorial pages of the state's mainstream media. Most of the state's major editorial pages joined the exposed members of the Legislature in denouncing Hall. An ad hoc committee of the Texas House of Representatives labored for months to find a way to remove Hall from the board of regents. When their own lawyers told them Hall hadn't done anything for which he could be impeached and was in fact carrying out the duties of a regent, the committee slapped Hall instead with a gratuitous and toothless "censure," an act with the legal meaning and gravitas of "fuck you anyway."

See also: Wallace Hall Was Right

Hall is still technically under threat of criminal indictment by the Travis County district attorney, but nobody believes that process amounts to much more than sour grapes.

For people who have followed this saga closely, the attorney general's report was less a surprise than a relief. It means that the former attorney general, Governor Greg Abbott allowed the investigation to proceed honestly, even if he may have stalled the production of the report until after his election. If anything, the content of the report is just one more proof that Hall was right about everything he said and did from the beginning.

You'll have to forgive me if I have a very newspaper reportery take on all this, but that is what I am, after all. The Texas Tribune, headquartered in Austin, fashions itself as an authoritative journal of state government. But from the beginning it has attempted no independent investigation of Hall's charges, has never followed the leads developed by Cassidy and Williamson and has served mainly as house organ to the UT hierarchy and various legislators angry over being exposed.

This most recent story by Hamilton in the Tribune -- "No news here, folks, nothing to gawk at, y'all need to return to your homes" -- is really the final nail in the coffin of that entity's credibility, at least for me.

I know a lot of my fellow ink-stained wretches have great hopes for so-called nonprofit journalism. But I think when the rubber meets the road, if you're UT, and if you have been writing fat checks to the Tribune for several years, and if you may or may not continue to write those checks, you get the kind of coverage you can live with. If you're the reader? You get a kind of bland he-said she-said fake equivalency that amounts to a big fat pack of lies.

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