State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote a letter of recommendation for his son when the younger Pitts was applying to the University of Texas School of Law, he confirmed to the Tribune. But he insisted the recommendation was one of many letters he’s written over two decades in the Legislature and strongly denied attempting to exert any undue influence over the admission process.
Last week, an article in National Review suggested that Pitts “intervened with the law school on behalf of his son.” The article was published after a lawyer for embattled University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall publicly asserted that “allegations of political influence in the admissions process [at UT-Austin] appears in some instances to be true.”
Pitts has been a leading voice in advocating for the impeachment of Hall, who he believes to be on a “witch hunt” targeting UT-Austin President Bill Powers.
In a written statement provided to Kevin Williamson, the author of the National Review article, Pitts did not deny to that he had written a letter but did not confirm it either. In a subsequent interview with the Tribune, he acknowledged for the first time weighing in on his son’s behalf — but without crossing the line.
“Did I ever call for my son — or the over 100 people I’ve recommended over the years — and ask for special treatment? No, I did not,” said Pitts, who added that writing such letters has long been standard practice for lawmakers at the Capitol.
The matter might never have come up — Pitts’ son recently graduated from UT's law school — were it not for the mid-August letter from Hall’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, to state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, the co-chairs of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Operations, which has jurisdiction over the regent's possible impeachment. With hearings on the matter expected in the near future, Ryan hoped to provide the committee with context for some of Hall’s controversial actions, including his repeated demands for the flagship university to spend time and money to provide him with thousands of records not usually requested by the system’s board members.
In his letter, Ryan explained that one of Hall's motivations to continue digging was his the discovery of alleged “secret favoritism” in UT-Austin admissions. Ryan cited two examples, including correspondence from an unnamed state representative inquiring about the admission of their adult child to a graduate school at the university.
“Although the dean had previously stated the applicant did not meet the school’s standards and would need to either retake the graduate admission exam or attend another graduate school first,” Ryan wrote, “upon information and belief, the son or daughter was in fact admitted without retaking the test or attending another school.”
Despite the pains taken by Ryan to maintain the anonymity of the representative in question, others quickly homed in on Pitts.
It was not the first time such insinuations had been made. In June, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry expressed concern that Pitts’ efforts to oust Hall “could be motivated by attempts to conceal emails that include information about members of the Legislature requesting admission to the UT law school on behalf of others.”
In late August, the day after Williamson’s account was posted online, Pitts announced that he would not be seeking re-election, prompting another round of speculation. “Why would the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee take such a step?” Austin-based conservative gadfly Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote on his blog. “Could it be because he went beyond being a helpful parent and abused his authority?”
In his interview with the Tribune, Pitts said he had written his resignation announcement in May. He acknowledged that its release — which had been put on hold until lawmakers had concluded their work in three special sessions — coming on the heels of Williamson’s article was simply “bad timing.”
Pitts said there was only one thing that really tempted him to run for re-election. “I’d really like to stay and fight this Wallace Hall thing,” he said. “But I need to get out. It’s time to retire.”
As for whether he was, in fact, the unnamed representative in question, Pitts said he did not know for sure. But he said was not surprised that he had become a target. “It’s just politics,” he said. “If I attack Wallace Hall, they attack me. That’s just the way it is.”
But if it is him, Pitts said, “the facts aren’t correct.” Specifically, he said, unlike the child of the representative mentioned in the letter, his son did retake his law school entrance exam and was ultimately admitted to five schools, including one out of state and another private school in Texas.
Pitts also expressed concern about Hall's possession and handling of information relating to students’ applications.
Citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects students’ personal information, Pitts said, “I think there’s a clear violation of my son and also other students on their FERPA rights. I’m real concerned about that and probably will be talking about that more in the future.”
Hall and Ryan both declined to respond to Pitts' comments or to identify the unnamed lawmaker. But in his letter to the committee co-chairs, Ryan made a point of clarifying that they were discussing actions beyond mere letter writing.
"It is fully appropriate for members of the Legislature to write recommendations for candidates seeking admission to UT Austin or other parts of the UT System," Ryan wrote. "However, it is inappropriate for legislators or other powerful persons to act outside the normal admissions process, through direct intercession with senior University officials.”