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UT Admissions Case Goes to High Court, Journalism Goes to Hell

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I was just perusing some of the financial disclosures for the “nonprofit” online news service based in Austin called The Texas Tribune. And this, by the way, is a column about my own craft, journalism, which I will try to make as painless as possible because I know many of you did not take journalism in school for a reason.

Many of my peers in the business say the future is in what they call “nonprofit journalism.” That’s where you don’t try to make profit but seek backing from large donors instead. I don’t even get the concept. It sounds like nonprofit used car sales to me. Why donate? Oh, wait. Maybe there is a reason. That's what this column is about.

The Tribune discloses at the bottoms of its stories whether someone in the story has donated money to the Tribune in the past. At the bottom of the story I was reading, “UT Regent Hall Appeals to Texas Supreme Court in Fight With Chancellor,” I found the following:

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

When I looked at recent IRS filings for the Tribune, I found the UT System gave the Tribune $196,243 in 2012 and $352,333 in 2013, for a total in those two years alone of well over half a million dollars, which, for an online news service without printing or distribution expenses is a damn sweet piece of change.

But who cares, right? It’s all going to journalism, and, as we know, journalism is the holy pursuit of truth in which no one gives a thought to money and no one ever buys a sailboat with the extra.

I’m sure that’s all true. But I was trying to figure out the difference between two very different stories I read about Wallace Hall and his court case against UT. I have written about this a lot in the past but not for a while.

Hall is from Dallas. In 2011, former Gov. Rick Perry appointed Hall to the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System, which oversees all of the universities in the UT system, from Austin to Dallas to the “Permian Basin.” (Where else but Texas could a university be named after an oilfield?)

Perry had a reform plan for state universities that a lot of people including me hated. But Hall never got into it. If anything, he sidetracked himself with his own investigation of student admissions. Hall’s one-man probe revealed widespread favoritism and corruption, all later corroborated by an independent outside private investigation.

The most stunning thing about what Hall found – and his biggest problem, over time – was the matter of who. Not who did it at the university level. He nailed that by name. Several top executives vamoosed right away. Eventually the longtime president of UT-Austin, Bill Powers, stepped down, as did the UT system chancellor, who is the chairman of the board for the whole system. We know all that.

But who was doing the corrupting from the outside? The answer was, everybody big with a dumb kid. Thanks to the brilliant investigative work of Jon Cassidy at watchdog.org, we know that top legislators with direct checkbook control over the UT system were shoehorning dummies in right and left, usually their own relatives. And members of the very board of regents to which Hall belonged, past and present, seemed to be in on the backdoor dumbbell deal as well.

In addition, names of partners in major law firms in the state, big bankers, old families, pretty much a cross-section of the upper power crust of Texas, all have come into view at one point or another.

By the way, the private investigative report found 73 students who got in the backdoor. But by parsing that report, intended to be only an overview of the findings, Cassidy was able to show that the private gumshoes hired by UT had miscounted by 1,046 percent. The real number of dummies indicated by the report should have been 744, not 73, and that may still be a deep underestimate.

But the names of the people paying off or leveraging UT to let their kids in never got nailed to the page because the hired executive in charge of the UT system, Admiral William H. McRaven, slammed shut the files of the private investigation the minute Hall demanded to see them.

Hall told McRaven that he, Hall, was McRaven’s boss, and he wanted to see the pages. McRaven said tough.
Always in the past any regent had the right to see any document he demanded, one reason being that all regents have fiduciary responsibility for the institutions they govern, and they can’t govern responsibly if their own institution can hide information from them. But in this case the full board of regents, some of whose names already had been published as possibly implicated in the admissions scandal, voted to give their own hired guy, McRaven, the right to withhold information from them.

Yowza. Seems crazy, right? If the board of directors of a bank voted to give their CEO the right to withhold from them any information about possible embezzlement by members of the board of directors – “No, no, don’t tell us about it, we insist” – we might smell a rat or two, right?

I’m going to skip ahead a bit on the legal process. When Hall sued McRaven for the information, arguing that the regents can’t vote to exempt themselves from state law, a trial court and an appeals court did smell a rat. Wallace Hall. Both courts shot him down dead.

Me no lawyer. I assume they had arguments. But I take into account, as well, that the Hall lawsuit is a torpedo attack on the very kind of people and the very same citadels of power from which judges hail. So at the very least it’s an intriguing lawsuit with a lot to talk about.

At the end of last week, Hall filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of Texas. He asked for expedited handling, which he may or may not get, because he goes off the board of regents next February. At that time he loses his standing to sue, and the case dies. The other side, of course, has been running out the string with that outcome in sight.

The two stories, then: In Jon Cassidy’s piece on watchdog.org I learn that, “Attorneys for University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall say a decision by the state Supreme Court on Chancellor Bill McRaven’s handling of records involved in the UT admissions scandal will have ‘massive implications for state governance.’”

Cassidy explains: “If the ruling holds, boards and city councils would be able to hide their activities not just from the public, but from their fellow elected officials.”

I learn from Cassidy’s piece there is a timing mistake in the decision by which Hall was shot down at the appeals court. The appeals court said Hall should have sued his fellow regents, because they were the ones who voted to close off his access to the documents he seeks, not McRaven.

But McRaven shut down Hall’s access before the board voted to endorse his decision. So if McRaven’s action was bogus, how can the board, themselves suspects, vote to make his action un-bogus?

Anyway, interesting stuff. Now if we turn to the article in the Texas Tribune – the outfit that has received at least half a million dollars but not for sailboats from UT – we learn the following: “University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall's public fight with the chancellor of the system he oversees isn't over yet.”

The Tribune tells us that, “McRaven has offered redacted versions of documents sought by Hall but says he needs to protect student information. The full board of regents agreed, and voted to deny the records. Hall argues that the denial is illegal.”

A bit later in the piece: “I am confident that the actions of the UT System have been in accordance with state and federal laws protecting confidential student information, and we will continue to defend our position,” McRaven said.

A lovely story. The UT system couldn’t have written it any nicer itself.

I asked Hall for comment. He sent me this written response: 

“If the 3rd Circuit’s decision becomes the law of the land, imagine a future where pubic boards of our universities and state agencies may conceal their own illegal acts and those of state employees from independent board members, the public and even the courts, all by a simple vote of a majority.

“This will inevitably lead to less transparency, weakened oversight and further erosion of the public’s trust."       

Awful. Now I have to go lie down and try to imagine how I might have written this column differently with an extra half million in my pocket. Next, I will try it with just a quarter mil’.

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