By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
HOUSTON — Rich lawyers write big checks to a foundation that stuffs the pockets of administrators making the admissions decisions at the University of Texas law school.
Is this charity or pay-to-play?
In June, the Law School Foundation fiercely denied any wrongdoing, calling conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan’s accusation of a “payola” scheme at the law school “false, defamatory and malicious.”
It turns out, however, that the children of prominent members of the Law School Foundation have had remarkable success at getting into the exclusive program. A review by Watchdog.org has found the foundation’s current board members have watched at least eight of their children get admitted into the program, not to mention a son-in-law and a grandson.
The foundation’s private donor lists show that several of the board members gave five- and six-figure donations to the foundation after their children were admitted to UT Law.
That’s not to say the students were unqualified. Of the 10, all of whom attended UT Law during the past decade, two are still enrolled, one just graduated and the other six passed the bar exam on their first try. Just one of them hasn’t passed the bar.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean they deserved their spots; UT routinely rejects genuinely brilliant applicants with scores in the 170s on the Law School Admissions Test who will go on to ace the bar. Of the six who passed the bar, one switched careers shortly after graduation and is now a promising country singer, one has gone into the workout DVD business, and two have gone to work at their father’s firms.
In 2012, the foundation successfully opposed the public disclosure of its donor rosters, so a definitive answer to the question of how many of its big donors got hookups for their children will have to wait. (We just have these records from two years: 2003 and 2005.)
Attorney General Greg Abbott agreed to conduct an investigation into the Law School Foundation in April 2013, but hasn’t even started yet. Instead, his office has insisted that University of Texas regent Wallace Hall should produce all of the evidence to be considered in any investigation. If there’s anything Hall can’t document in advance, “we will presume that those issues and facts either do not exist or are not relevant to our investigation,” Deputy Attorney General John B. Scott wrote in an Aug. 21 email.
The long-running controversy at the University of Texas got started in late 2011 with the disclosure the law school’s dean at the time, Larry Sager, had accepted a $500,000 payment from the foundation that was unknown to anybody outside the foundation, with the possible exception of the university’s president, Bill Powers. (Sager says he discussed it with Powers, which Powers denies.)
That raised a question that’s never been answered — how much influence does the foundation have over the law school’s affairs? Nobody has alleged any explicit quid pro quo arrangements, but it’s clear administrators have been getting plenty of quid, while the foundation is getting what it wants, too.
The cash payouts have been impressive: Powers has gotten some $635,919 in deferred compensation from his time as dean of the law school. Sager, his successor, got the famous $500,000 forgivable loan, which he is now repaying in part. That was just a fraction of the $5.4 million in forgivable loans the foundation had made to faculty.
Then there are the massive pay supplements to two assistant deans at the law school, Kimberly Biar and Carla Cooper, who were already among the best-paid assistant deans on campus. Biar and Cooper, who has since left UT, split their time between the law school and the foundation, and were paid by both. According to a state employee salary database built in 2012 by the Texas Tribune, Biar was the best paid assistant dean at UT at the time, with a salary of $182,000, and Cooper was in the top tier, at $120,000. But their pay from the foundation dwarfed their salaries. From 2008 to 2011, the foundation paid Biar a total of $764,990 and paid Cooper $869,615.
The two students currently enrolled at UT Law whose parents are on the foundation’s board are Becca Fine and Joseph Cialone. Fine’s mother is Nina Cortell, a partner at Haynes and Boone, LLP. Cialone’s father, who shares his name, is a trustee emeritus, and a longtime supporter of the foundation. In 2003 and 2005, the two years for which we have records, his father gave $35,000 to the foundation. As well, his employer, Baker Botts, donated $121,320.
Travis Knight just graduated; the July bar results won’t be available until November. His father, Ed Knight, is a foundation trustee, as well as general counsel for NASDAQ.
Elaine “Lainey” Delmore Balagia graduated in 2011, passed the bar, and promptly cut her debut album. You can catch her at the Texas Exes Fall Party in September, or a UT Law bash the next month. Her father, S. Jack Balagia, Jr., is a current trustee and general counsel for Exxon Mobil. He gave $11,000 in 2003, but you can put his employer down for $129,050 in those years.
Wales Hendrix Madden, IV, is the grandson of Wales H. Madden, Jr., a senior trustee and former UT System regent. He got his J.D. in December 2012, according to UT records, but hasn’t passed the bar in his two tries.
John D. Montford, the former state senator and Texas Tech chancellor, saw his daughter, Melonie Montford DeRose, as well as his son-in-law, Zeke DeRose, attend UT Law. The two had gone to UCLA together for undergrad. He’s a lawyer now; she’s a member of the bar, too, but is now putting out fitness videos.
Ben DeLeon, class of ’04, works for his father Hector’s firm. Hector De Leon is a trustee emeritus of the foundation.
Stephen L. Tatum, Jr.’s father was a trustee from 2010-2013, and gave the foundation $35,010 long ago. Tatum the younger now writes opinions for the attorney general.
Christin Goolsby Livesay, who graduated in 2006, works for Locke Lord, LLP, where her father, Bryan L. Goolsby, is executive chairman. Her mother, Michelle Goolsby, was a foundation trustee from 2010-2013, but both parents have given a lot to the foundation — a combined $200,330 in the years on record.
Contact Jon Cassidy at email@example.com or @jpcassidy000.