Culture of Clout-Abuse?

In less than 24 hours Texans heard the voice of our lieutenant governor trying to get his “step-niece-in-law” out of jail, and read the words of a powerful House committee chairman all-but admitting he used his influence to get his son into law school.


Dewhurst... no get-out-of-jail-free pass
Frankly, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s entire conversation with the Allen Police Department is painful. He was clearly trying to get his “step-niece-in-law” out of jail, while not doing anything illegal. He repeatedly notes his title, telling the local cop that the head of the Department of Public Safety will be calling on the matter later (that call never happened).

Mr. Dewhurst clearly wanted to sway the cop (he tossed around his title more times than one can count), but had to hang up without getting what he obviously wanted.

Why? On the other end of that conversation was an Allen Police sergeant who was polite, unflappable… and unyielding in his understanding of the law. Some people might have wanted to curry favor with the lieutenant governor, hoping to build a relationship to trade from in the future. The police officer, Sgt. Jonathan Maness, and his department leadership deserve credit for doing the right thing the right way, when it would have been easy to bend the rules.

In Sgt. Maness we find a public servant who understands that the law is above any person. Now, if only more people of that caliber existed in the state’s institutions of higher education…

Just like a local police department has rules for how someone gets out of jail, so too do the state’s public universities have rules for how someone gets into their institution.


Pitts... quitting rather than come clean?
In an interview with the influential conservative magazine National Review, State Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie), didn’t deny he had successfully worked the University of Texas to get his son admitted to the law school. Interestingly, the very next day Mr. Pitts announced he wouldn’t seek a reelection.

Why would the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee take such a step? Could it be because he went beyond being a helpful parent and abused his authority?

Mr. Pitts comments were in response to revelations in NR and elsewhere that, in the course of investigating financial malfeasance, University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall stumbled on records showing members of the legislature using their clout to get otherwise unqualified students accepted to the university. Not surprisingly, it is Mr. Pitts who filed resolution seeking to impeach Mr. Hall.

The actions detailed by Mr. Hall’s attorneys – if true – could well be illegal. That Mr. Pitts responded to NR, and confirmed that he acted to get his son into the law school, should be enough to warrant an investigation into what he actually did. Was he, in fact, the unnamed legislator?

State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Highland Park) has for several years served as chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, and could call for hearings immediately. Why he hasn’t investigated these and other alleged abuses over these several years is a mystery, especially since he now wants the job of Attorney General. (What higher-ed skeletons are lurking in his closest?)

At a minimum, Mr. Pitts and his son should explicitly confirm or deny whether they were the ones mentioned – though unnamed – in the Hall letter.

It is unlikely that Pitts’ political patron, House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), will do anything on this count. Neither can we expect the kangaroo committee Straus appointed to investigate Wallace Hall to shift gears and look into Mr. Pitts’ activities and actions. Was Mr. Pitts’ adult son qualified to enter UT? Did Mr. Pitts abuse his position and clout to get his son admitted?

Rather than come clean, Mr. Pitts has – literally – lead the charge to silence Mr. Hall through impeachment.

Whoever he spoke to at UT knew Jim Pitts held the purse strings for the state. That’s de facto influence peddling, even if not the particular, explicitly illegal situation Mr. Hall uncovered. Jim Pitts should explain himself, not be allowed to bury the whistle-blower as he heads for the door.

We expect our elected officials – those who we place in offices of public trust – to comport themselves with far greater dignity. The highest governing power is the law, not a person. When people entrusted with a public office, act as though they are above the law, the governing system needs a new set of leaders.

It is unsettling to see a culture of clout entitlement taking hold of the Texas Legislature. It is even more embarrassing that some very powerful men see little public shame in throwing around their clout to help family members. The tragedy will be made complete if we as Texas citizens don’t now demand a full accounting for how our elected official use and abuse our offices and trust.


Dewhurst photo: Ben Philpott, Texas Tribune/KUT

Take Action

JoinGive
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael is president and CEO of Empower Texans, and its premier project, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. A graduate of Texas A&M, former newspaper reporter, one-time Capital Hill staffer, think tank vice president and an Eagle Scout, Sullivan is married with three children. He divides his time between the Metroplex, the rest of Texas, and Austin.

Read All Posts