Longhorn Lobby?

UT's Ethical Entanglements at the Capitol


illustration by Doug Potter

In politics, money means access. Donations to campaigns, gifts -- such as football tickets -- and expensive parties are used by donors to get access, and in theory, influence, over legislators.

Given the hard fact that money equals access, should public institutions, like universities, act any different from corporations? By law, they are supposed to. "The basic rule is you can't use state funds for lobbying," explains Karen Lundquist, general counsel at the Texas Ethics Commission. Nor are state officials supposed to use state equipment, time, or facilities for political activities.

And yet, in its efforts to get money out of the Texas Legislature, the University of Texas System has often acted very much like a corporation or other for-profit entities. UT's vice chancellor for governmental relations, Mike Millsap, is paid like a lobbyist: He earns $165,480 and is given an additional $8,400 per year for a car allowance. He was trained like a lobbyist: Millsap is a former legislator from Fort Worth who served four terms in the House, and he also worked as chief of staff for the ethically challenged former speaker of the house Gib Lewis. And Millsap acts like a lobbyist: He visits legislators and gives them UT's views on pending legislation.

Ray Farabee, a vice chancellor and general counsel for the system, insists that Millsap and other members of the governmental relations department do not lobby. Instead, he says they "provide information and answer inquiries." That description, though, could fit every hired-gun lobbyist at the Capitol. Every lobbyist wants to provide information and answer inquiries. And if you have access to legislators and can deliver your information, then you have the ability to affect legislation.

"We don't advocate, we provide information, and we are scrupulous about following that," Millsap stresses. And UT certainly is justified in providing information at the Capitol. After all, the UT System has 15 campuses, 150,000 students and 60,000 employees. Texas needs good schools at all levels, particularly at the university level. But how much influence should UT have at the Capitol? And who will monitor UT's lobbyists to assure that they just provide information?

Lundquist admits that UT and other state agencies and institutions fall through the cracks of current state laws. On one hand, she points out that there is a provision in state law that exempts members of the executive, legislative, or judicial branches from registering with the Ethics Commission if they are compensated to lobby. On the other hand, those same officials are not supposed to lobby. "How do you request a report on something that is illegal?" asks Lundquist. (UT, and its regents, who are appointed by the governor, technically fit within the executive branch of state government).

While the university's interactions with legislators raise some questions, UT's fundraising activities raise even more. A recent investigation by the San Antonio Express-News found that UT officials have been bundling contributions to state politicians on a system-wide scale since 1992. According to the Express-News, UT officials, along with university supporters and friends like Morris Atlas, former UT Board of Regents chairman Bernard Rapoport, and the Friends of the University political action committee -- a PAC started by UT alums -- have donated $208,900 to Bullock since 1992. The fundraising on Bullock's behalf indicates how important UT officials believe it is to maintain good relations with the Senate's most powerful curmudgeon.

Russell Gold of the Express-News has also reported that in August of 1994, seven UT system presidents were driven in a van from a meeting at the Barton Creek Country Club to Rapoport's home in Waco in order to attend a fundraiser for Bullock. Five days later, Bullock's campaign received $47,225 worth of checks from 46 high-ranking UT officials.

According to Gold's research, from 1992 through 1996, the Friends of the University PAC raised $432,398 and gave $334,983 to 203 politicians. According to PAC treasurer John Fainter, a 1963 graduate of the UT Law School, several boosters, including Bobby Ray Inman, Larry Temple, and George Christian, decided in 1992 that they needed to do more to help fund higher education in Texas. "We felt we should be able to be in the political process showing support for higher education in general and the university in particular," said Fainter, a partner at the law firm of McGinnis Lochridge and Kilgore, who lobbies at the Capitol for clients including Exxon, Ford Motor Credit, and the Texas Turnpike Authority. And Fainter doesn't see anything untoward about the PAC. "We are independent from the university," he said. "We are supporting the university and we feel we have the right to do that."

Farabee, a former member of the Texas Senate who doubles as the UT System's ethics officer, is among the PAC's biggest donors. When he left the Senate in 1988, Farabee had tens of thousands of dollars in leftover campaign contributions in his officeholder account. Since then, he has given $3,900 to the UT PAC, and thousands of dollars to various political candidates. According to his filings at the Texas Ethics Commission, Farabee gave a total of $13,620 to political candidates since January 1995. Last year, he gave $1,000 each to Bullock and Attorney General Dan Morales. He gave $100 each to Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, and Austin city councilmember Beverly Griffith. Farabee has also given thousands of dollars to charitable organizations like the Texas Alliance for Human Needs and Planned Parenthood.

Farabee said the donations were made by him as an individual, not as a representative of UT. "Making a political contribution is not illegal, and it is a part of the American or Texas political process until you find another way of financing campaigns," he said. Farabee estimated he currently has about $6,000 left in his officeholder account.

While Farabee's contributions are legal, there is a whiff of impropriety around political contributions that have been made by Millsap. Through the Open Records Act, the Chronicle obtained half a dozen fundraising letters from members of the Texas Legislature that have been sent to Millsap at the UT System office at 210 W. Sixth since last August. Legislators asking Millsap or Armando Diaz, an assistant vice chancellor for governmental relations, for money include Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and Reps. Glen Maxey (D-Austin), Hugo Berlanga (D-Corpus Christi), Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), and Robby Cook (D-Eagle Lake).

Both Whitmire and Maxey defended their fundraising letters, saying they had received contributions from Millsap in the past. Whenever they get contributions from an individual, that name is added to their database and the individual is automatically sent a letter.

While that may be the case, the fact that legislators are asking for money from officials that they regulate raises an ethical question. In addition, the letters from the legislators were sent to Millsap's UT address, not his home address. Millsap responds that he has not made any political donations, and that he has no idea why legislators are asking him for money. "I'm a public official and a former member [of the house]," he explains. "I receive mail from a variety of sources. I don't think of it as anything extraordinary."

The UT fundraising issue will be getting increasing amounts of coverage in the coming months as the legal proceedings in a lawsuit known as Jude Valdez vs. William Cunningham et al., goes through discovery and trial. Valdez, a vice president of UT-San Antonio, sued Cunningham, the chancellor of the UT System, and other UT officials in federal court in San Antonio last fall, claiming that UT violated his civil rights and his right of free speech. Valdez contends he was forced to donate money to Bullock by his superior at UTSA. When he turned in his $100 check a few days late, he claims, he was reprimanded by UTSA president Samuel Kirkpatrick. Valdez says Kirkpatrick then demoted him and stripped him of many of his duties.

Lowell Lebermann, a former Austin city councilmember and now a member of the UT Board of Regents, calls the Valdez suit "nonsense." In February, shortly after the first story about UT's fundraising efforts for Bullock came out in the San Antonio Express-News, Lebermann told the Chronicle he had just returned from a luncheon honoring Lady Bird Johnson. While there, he saw Bullock's wife, Jan. He joked that he had asked her to tell Bullock that "we love him and we are with him, and don't let him be mad at us for raising so little." Lebermann recalls that he asked Mrs. Bullock to tell her husband that "in spite of press reports, we only raised $190,000 of the $10 million he's raised over the past five years, and we hope he's not mad at us."

When asked if UT officials had coerced its administrators into giving money to Bullock, Lebermann replied, "This is Texas, not Louisiana."

While the UT System office is a long way from the Sabine River, UT administrators have been giving more than money to legislators. According to documents obtained by the Chronicle under the Open Records Act, the UT System has spent $5,937 since January 1, 1996, on football tickets to UT home games for members of the Texas Legislature. The tickets ranged in price from $24 to $35. Millsap says that the tickets were purchased with "unrestricted gift money. This is not state money." And while those tickets would raise questions of impropriety elsewhere, provisions in the Ethics Code allow legislators to accept tickets to intercollegiate athletic events as long as the legislator is treated as a guest and stays in close proximity to a UT official during the game. In addition to the tickets, legislators were also given free parking passes and were invited to pre-game receptions at the alumni center.

So what does all this mean? For some legislators like Mike Moncrief (D-Fort Worth), it means UT needs to play by the same rules as everyone else. "Lobbying is lobbying," said Moncrief, who believes that UT officials should be required to register as lobbyists just like everyone else.

John Umphress, research director for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, says "There's obviously something wrong" with the way UT is operating at the Capitol. "You've got to wonder what the university is seeking," said Umphress. "They are the premier land grant university in the state. They should be able to argue a case for getting adequate funding without attempting to buy favors with campaign contributions and free football tickets."

Umphress contends that UT's activities should be raising eyebrows throughout the Capitol. But instead, he says, it has "become the norm. And that's the regrettable thing about this."

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