Tuesday, May 13, 2014

UT admits the unqualified but politically connected

"Dishonest scales are an abomination to the Lord,
But a just weight is His delight."
Proverbs 11:1

A bombshell report from Watchdog.org about UT Law School admissions:
HOUSTON — Some of the least-qualified graduates of the University of Texas School of Law in recent years have high-level connections in the Legislature, which may explain how they got into the prestigious law school in the first place.

A months-long Watchdog.org analysis of political influence on the admissions process at UT Law found there’s some truth, after all, to the old line about who you know mattering more than what you know. We found dozens of Longhorns who don’t know enough to be lawyers but know somebody important in the Legislature.

Two of those mediocre students are legislators themselves.

Some have connections to the leadership circle of House Speaker Joe Straus, others to powerful state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who’s already been caught three times trying to pull end runs around the admissions process.


Watchdog.org found a pattern of overlapping political influence and underwhelming performance on the bar exam. Any single one of the cases we describe could have an alternate explanation, such as personal problems that derailed studies.

Taken as a whole, however, they offer clear evidence that political influence is the reason dozens of students who are unable to pass the bar are getting into the state’s top law school.


Normally, almost nobody who gets into UT Law fails the bar. Watchdog.org found 90 students who had failed it twice or more. That should be reason enough for university officials to double-check their grades and Law School Admission Test — or LSAT — scores to see which students actually earned admission, and who benefited from a political favor.

We found additional reasons to scrutinize 24 names on that list:

  • At least 15 of the students are politically connected, either through office, personal relationships, or campaign donations to officeholders who have figured in the fight over UT’s leadership. 

  • At least 12 of the students have roots in Laredo, home of state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who is known to have pulled strings on behalf of other applicants. As Laredo has just 2 percent of the state’s population, it’s highly over represented in this sample. 

  • A half-dozen of the students have connections to state Rep. Joe Straus, his close allies, or a lobby shop that rose to prominence with Straus’s ascendance to speaker in 2009. 

  • Two of the students are known to have LSAT scores well below UT standards. James Ryan Pitts, son of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, has now failed the bar exam three times since graduation after scoring a 155 and a 147 on the LSAT, which is scored on a scale of 120 to 180. Those scores rank in the 64th percentile and 33rd percentile nationwide, and are well below the scores in the mid-160s that UT usually requires. 

  • Another 2012 graduate with three LSAT scores in the 140s failed the bar exam twice, but because we don’t yet have scores for most of these students, we’re not singling her out and naming her.


Two recent UT Law grads already were elected officials when they were admitted.

State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, like Zaffirini a Democrat from Laredo, who was first elected in 1992, failed the bar exam in 2007 and 2008, and is not a member of the Texas bar.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, first elected in 2002, failed the bar three times between 2010 and 2012, and is not a member of the bar, either. One of Rodriguez’s senior staffers, also a UT Law grad, failed the bar three times between 2009 and 2010.

Rodriguez works for the law firm of Brown McCarroll, which dove deep into lobbying during the 2008 election cycle. When Straus led a post-election coup to unseat Republican Speaker Tom Craddick with his “Gang of 11” Republicans and the support of the Democratic caucus, Brown McCarroll was one of the biggest beneficiaries, according to Capitol Inside.

Thanks to the former Straus staffers and the Democratic officeholders it employed, Brown McCarroll was suddenly the second most influential law firm lobby shop in town. Among its employees were state Sen. Kirk Watson, a critic of Regent Hall, and former state Rep. Pete Gallego, now a congressman.


Of the nearly 2,700 UT Law students to take the exam since 2006, only 29 have failed it three times or more. Thirteen made our list for closer inspection, and seven of those have ties to Laredo.

Among the 13 are Carlos Manuel Zaffirini Jr., the state senator’s only son, and Jeffrey Carona, the son of Republican state Sen. John Carona. Sen. Carona has donated some $31,043 to Zaffirini’s campaign in recent years, in addition to undisclosed sums his company paid her as a “communications consultant.”

As of the February 2014 exam, Ryan Pitts, son of the outgoing Appropriations Committee chairman and one of Straus’ Gang of 11, has failed the bar three times.
Read the whole thing here.

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