Lone Star Lunacy

by Kevin D. Williamson
There’s something rotten in the state of Texas.

Why do state universities have boards of trustees? In Texas, where the rather grandiose flagship university system styles its trustees “regents,” the governor appoints representatives to the universities’ governing boards in order to ensure that state resources are being stewarded responsibly. Governor Rick Perry has been more aggressive than most in seeking to reform his state’s higher-education system, from innovations such as his $10,000 degree challenge to such old-fashioned bugaboos as efficiency and institutional honesty. One of the regents he appointed, Dallas businessman Wallace Hall, pursued the latter energetically, and what he helped to uncover was disturbing: The dean of the law school resigned after it was revealed that he had received a $500,000 “forgivable loan” from the law-school foundation, without the university administration’s having been made aware of the extra compensation. And in a development sure to put a grimace on the face of any student or parent who has ever waited with anticipation to hear from a first-choice college or graduate school, Mr. Hall uncovered the fact that members of the Texas legislature were seeking and receiving favorable treatment for family members and political allies in admissions to the university’s prestigious law school.

Given the nature of these scandals — the improper use of political power — it was natural enough that impeachments and criminal investigations followed. What is unnatural — and inexplicable, and indefensible, and shameful — is the fact that it is Wallace Hall who is facing impeachment and possible charges.

Mr. Hall, as noted, was appointed by Governor Perry, and there is no overestimating the depth or intensity of the Texas higher-education establishment’s hatred for Rick Perry. (He himself seems rather fond of his alma mater, Texas A&M.) Perry’s dryland-farmer populism is not calculated to please deans of diversity or professors of grievance, but academia’s Perry hatred is more financial than cultural. The idea that a college degree, even a specialized one, could be delivered for $10,000 is anathema to the higher-education establishment, which views ever-soaring tuition as its own collective welfare entitlement. Texas’s ducal university presidents and (ye gods, but the titles!) chancellors are accustomed to doing as they please and to enjoying salaries and perks that would be the envy of many chief executives in the private sector — not only the medieval holdover of tenure, but such postmodern benefits as a comfy professorship for one’s spouse. The last thing they want is some trustee — some nobody appointed by the duly elected governor of the state to manage the resources of the people who fund the universities — poking his nose in what they consider their business rather than the state’s business. Mr. Hall, a successful investor and oil-and-gas entrepreneur, is not an aspiring academic or politician, and he has little or nothing to gain from annoying the university’s administration — other than the satisfaction of doing the job that it is his duty to do.

The case against Mr. Hall consists mainly of adjectives: “vindictive,” “bullying,” “blustery,” “myopic,” “mean-spirited,” “intense,” “malignant.” The broad claim against him is that in the course of uncovering plain wrongdoing by university officials and Texas politicians of both parties, he used investigative techniques that amounted to harassment. Setting aside the question of whether people engaged in wrongdoing on the state’s dime should or should not be harassed — for the record, the latter seems preferable to me — the case against Mr. Hall is mainly that he asked for a great deal of information and that he was insufficiently deferential to the refined sensibilities of the august ladies and gentlemen whose proprietary treatment of the University of Texas is in question.

Mr. Hall is also accused of violating academic confidentiality rules, and it is here that the storyteller enters the plot as a minor character. I cannot avoid discussing my own small role in the case inasmuch as my name appears a dozen times in grand inquisitor Rusty Hardin’s vindictive, blustery, bullying, mean-spirited, vindictive report on the case, and the report distorts my National Review Online reporting on the subject. For example, Mr. Hardin writes:

That same day, Williamson posted a second on-line article about the e-mails in which he states “it was suggested to me that one of the legislators [Rep. Jim Pitts] leading the impeachment push was one of the same legislators who had sought preferential treatment for their children in admissions to the University of Texas law school.”

The name of Mr. Pitts in brackets suggests exactly the opposite of what happened. In this, Mr. Hardin’s report is false and should be immediately corrected.

As my reporting made clear, it was suggested to me by a critic of the university that the push to impeach Mr. Hall was an attempt to prevent the disclosure of the identity of those Texas legislators who were seeking preferential treatment for family and friends in admission to the university and its law school. Nobody suggested that the smoking gun I was in search of was to be found upon the hip of Representative Pitts. My thinking at the time went roughly thus: “Surely none of these legislators is stupid enough to be, at the same time, one of the people who had leaned on the law school on behalf of their kids and one of the people with their own names prominent in the Hall witch-hunt.” I had assumed there would be a degree or two of separation, but why not start with the prominent players? Being a hard-boiled reporter type, I went through the exhaustive process of looking up the online biographies of anti-Hall legislators and then googling their kids to see if any were enrolled in, or were recent graduates of, the university or its law school. After seven or eight minutes of grueling research apparently beyond the abilities of the utterly supine, groveling, risible Austin media, I had a few leads, and called the office of Representative Pitts, the chairman of the house ways and means committee of the Texas state house, who did most of the rest of the work for me, throwing a tantrum when I asked if he had sought special treatment for his son but not denying that he had. Almost immediately afterward, he announced that he would not be seeking reelection.

I had underestimated the average Texas Republican’s capacity for stupidity. Mr. Hardin et al. still seem to believe that my source was Mr. Hall or one of his attorneys, when it was Google and Representative Pitts.

On the subject of capacity estimates, one of the interesting details of the case is the fact that the law school expressly spelled out the reasons it could not admit Representative Pitts’s son, Ryan, and it suggested two possible remedies — retaking the LSAT or enrolling for a year in a different law school and there proving his mettle — but young Ryan Pitts was nonetheless admitted with neither of those conditions having been satisfied. It was a disservice to all involved: Coming out of a law school with a 95 percent first-time passage rate on the state bar, he failed the exam repeatedly — Pitts and two other political scions had at last count taken the exam ten times among the three of them — another example of an affirmative-action case undone by having been promoted over his capacities.

In addition to facing impeachment — a prospect the American Council of Trustees and Alumni describes as an example of “expensive witch hunts designed to discourage public servants from asking tough questions in pursuit of the public interest” –  Mr. Hall also faces possible criminal prosecution by the so-called Public Integrity Unit, a detail within the Travis County district attorney’s office charged with investigating official wrongdoing.

Those of you who have followed politics with any interest will recognize the woefully misnamed Public Integrity Unit as the former fiefdom of one Ronnie Earle, the Travis County prosecutor who engaged in outrageous grand-jury shopping in order to indict Tom DeLay — on charges of breaking a law that had not yet been passed at the time he was accused of having violated it — and succeeded in ending Mr. DeLay’s political career before having his case laughed out of court by a disdainful judge. Mr. Earle had tried the same thing before with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, with less success.

The out-of-control prosecutorial unit has recently turned its political wrath on — surprise — Rick Perry. Unhappy with the unit’s leadership — its publicly drunk, rage-filled, weeping, puppy-concerned, locked-in-restraints, pretty-much-bonkers leadership — Governor Perry vetoed the unit’s funding, and his office made it known that it would not be restored while current leadership was in place. Specifically, Governor Perry’s office wanted the ouster of the boss, Rosemary Lehmberg. Democrats say that Governor Perry wanted her scalp because she’s a Democrat and investigating his allies; the Perry camp maintains that the proximate cause was Ms. Lehmberg’s arrest on drunk-driving charges and her hilarious “Do You Know Who I Am?” performance, which was, conveniently, caught on video. It was not the Travis County district attorney office’s only DWI arrest of late, either.

In a legal theory worthy of the time-traveling Ronnie Earle, Texas Democrats have filed a complaint that Governor Perry’s insistence that he’d keep vetoing the Public Integrity Unit’s funding as long as its embarrassing leadership was in place constituted an offer of bribery, i.e., that his apparent willingness to see the detail’s state funding restored after a change of leadership amounted to an illegal payoff. A special prosecutor is to consider the question. If the complaint against Governor Perry has any merit, then every legislative deal ever made in the history of the republic is an act of corruption.

And that’s where Texas is right now: A regent exposes wrongdoing at the University of Texas and in the legislature, and the regent gets impeached, possibly prosecuted. The chief prosecutor for a “Public Integrity Unit” gets hauled in on drunk-driving charges, throws a fit, makes threats — and Rick Perry is in trouble for demanding her ouster.

Both of these episodes are shameful, backward, and suggestive of corruption. There is something rotten in the state of Texas.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.