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FreedomWorks: Texas Rangers Should Investigate UT-Austin

FreedomWorks, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of Tea Party-related causes, wants Gov. Rick Perry to call in the Texas Rangers to investigate the University of Texas at Austin.

The Main Building of The University of Texas at Austin.

FreedomWorks, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of Tea Party-related causes, wants Gov. Rick Perry to call in the Texas Rangers to investigate the University of Texas at Austin.

The group has a page inviting people to call Perry and tell him to send in the Rangers to look into allegations of political influence in the admissions process at UT-Austin.

"Right now, Texans are demanding answers about this potential scandal," the FreedomWorks site says. "But the investigation has been shut down."

The group's framing of the issue raises questions of accuracy. In fact, there is an active investigation of the university's admissions process.

Concerns about politicians wielding excessive influence over who gets into UT-Austin were most prominently raised by University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall last year. At the time, the regent's personal investigations into the flagship university were under investigation by a legislative committee, and his concerns about "secret favoritism" in admissions was cited by his attorneys as one of his motivating factors.

The legislative committee voted to "admonish and censure" the regent earlier this year.

Meanwhile, as the FreedomWorks effort suggest, questions about the university's admissions process have lingered.

After Hall raised the issue, the system conducted an initial internal inquiry into UT-Austin's admissions process. It determined that, of the applications they examined, those that included letters of recommendation sent by lawmakers to the president's office had a higher rate of admission. However, the review did not find evidence of any quid pro quo arrangements between legislators and university officials.

After that report was issued, University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa received additional information, the details of which have not been disclosed, that prompted him to call for an external investigation of the matter. The system hired Kroll Associates, a New York-based investigative firm, to look into it. That investigation, which the system agreed to pay up to $145,000 for, is currently under way.

The FreedomWorks page also notes that there have been allegations of "under-the-table payments to professors and administrators," which appears to be a reference to a now-defunct forgivable loan program through which the University of Texas Law School Foundation, a non-profit group, supplemented the salaries of some law professors at UT-Austin's law school.

The system also conducted an internal investigation of this matter, and the investigator deemed that the way the program was run was "not appropriate." However, some regents, including Hall, were not satisfied with the initial investigation. So they set that report aside and turned the matter over to the attorney general's office. 

While the investigation did stall for more than a year, a spokesman for the attorney general's office said on Monday that it is ongoing.

The Texas Rangers are the Texas Department of Public Safety's primary criminal investigators. A call to Perry's office to gauge his interest in the proposal was not immediately returned. A university spokesman also declined to comment.

FreedomWorks' communications director, Jackie Bodnar, said the group's action items are typically created as a response to concerns raised by members. "Our activists from different parts of the country will contact us when there’s an issue that’s important to them," she said. "We consider ourselves to be a service center to our activists. So, we try to find ways that we can help them be as effective as possible."

While FreedomWorks is a national group, it has signaled a strong interest in Texas. On Monday, it endorsed a bid by state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. 

The group's campaign relating to UT-Austin also targeted Straus, alleging that he had been involved in seeking special treatment from the university and its president, Bill Powers.

"As Speaker Straus made clear to President Powers years ago, he never asked UT to give any student special consideration," Jason Embry, a spokesman for Straus, said. "This disingenuous Washington group is simply using UT as a weapon in its four-year campaign to replace an effective speaker who encourages constructive problem-solving."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here


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