the Tribune

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, speaks at his election party at the DoubleTree Hotel Houston on Tuesday. Patrick led his opponents with more than 40 percent of the vote and will likely face Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a run-off election May 27.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

As Election Night unfolded, I sat at a watch party glued to my laptop. The first few results rolled in on Tuesday evening, I could not help but be surprised at what I was seeing. Dan Patrick, the ultra-conservative state senator from Houston, was leading incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst 2-to-1 in the primary for that post, flouting both what had been assumed as gospel by the political establishment and reported as fact from a recent Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll.

That same poll showed LaRouche activist (a cabal of conspiracy theorists) Kesha Rogers holding a plurality lead in the Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate. While she did — somehow — manage her way into a runoff with the establishment candidate, she did so with close to a 20 point deficit to make up, a normally insurmountable task.

The unpredictability of a Texas election is not a new concept, but the extent to which this one caught everyone off guard should serve as a wakeup call for all those who care about politics in this state. Currently, national polling firms neglect Texas elections except — every once in a while — during the immediate lead up to a presidential election. The result is that groups inexperienced in reliable election polling, such as the Tribune, are compelled to pick up the slack and ultimately delegate this important polling to unqualified organizations.

Some of the confusion about which way Texans would vote could stem from the less-than-accurate Tribune/UT poll. The poll was conducted via the Internet — instead of telephones — and allowed for opt-in responses rather than the pollsters going to the respondents. These conditions make for a poll that is slightly more reputable than no-frills Internet surveys.

“[T]he opt-in Internet survey methodology used by the UT pollsters and the Texas Tribune may be one of the most black magic of all the polling methods,” said RG Ratcliffe, a former Houston Chronicle reporter. “It’s a survey methodology so suspect that news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Roll Call magazine have refused to use it.”

Indeed, Tuesday night’s results have vindicated what Ratcliffe and many others have said about these polls, which have nearly cornered the market when it comes to tracking the horserace in Texas politics. Accordingly, the question is raised of what attentive followers like me should do so as to not stay in the dark on these events.

In 2012, like many others, I meticulously followed every last turn along the Presidential election campaigns. In the closing days of the campaign, there were three or four reputable polls coming out in swing states every week, not only for the presidential election but for reputable senate races. While there were surely upsets, the plethora of polls was able to paint a pretty accurate picture of the political landscape. But without any of these accurate polls going into election days, even the most experienced political professionals have no idea what is coming after 7 p.m.

The Houston Chronicle wrote Wednesday that Dan Patrick “defies the odds” by winning a plurality, but I am at a loss to understand exactly what odds they speak of. Without consistent and reputable polling, everyone is in the dark.

The solution to this issue is twofold. Either national polling firms could enter the marketplace in Texas, and help to illuminate the mystery and suspense behind Texas politics, or the Texas Tribune could adopt a more trustworthy polling method.

At a watch party Tuesday night, I sat next to longtime press veterans from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and CBS. As we gathered around my laptop to view the first returns coming in, each one of us had the same reaction: shock and surprise.

We all came to the conclusion that the Tribune poll was woefully unreliable. In fact, I would say the same for all the prognostications ahead of this year’s primaries. Texas deserves — no, it needs — better.

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston. 

Regent Stillwell says fellow regents "beating a dead horse" in investigation of Law School Foundation

In what appears to be the next development in the ongoing conflicts surrounding the UT System Board of Regents, the Texas Legislature and President William Powers Jr., individual regents have begun speaking with increased candor about the Board’s decision to seek an external review of the already-investigated UT Law School Foundation.

UT Regent Bobby Stillwell told the Texas Tribune his colleague Alex Cranberg was “splitting hairs” in defending the external review, while Cranberg made references to a potential “cover up” on the part of outgoing System general counsel Barry Burgdorf.

According to the Tribune, Stillwell said the Board should move on from its investigation of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation.

“There’s no useful purpose to be served by continuing to beat this dead horse,” Stillwell said.

Stillwell also appeared to criticize his colleague’s insistence that an insufficient number of reviews have been conducted. In March, 18 state senators signed a letter to the Board saying that the Board-approved review would be “the fourth review of this matter,” which Cranburg said reflected a misunderstanding of how many reviews have actually been conducted.

“I think whether we’re in round four of one investigation or on the fourth investigation is just semantics,” Stillwell told the Tribune. “The fact is, it’s been going on for the better part of a year.”

In an email to the Tribune on Wednesday, Cranberg maintained that the initial investigation, conducted by Burgdorf, did not adequately address the regents’ concerns about the UT Law School Foundation.

“[The investigation] was so inadequate that I have heard complaints of it being a cover up,” Cranberg wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Burgdorf announced his resignation in March.

Yesterday, The Texas Tribune published a revealing story about UT System Regent Wallace Hall Jr. 

These days, Hall is best known on campus and at the Capitol for his apparent mission to unseat UT President William Powers Jr. Specifically, Hall proposed and received approval from the other regents on March 20 to fund an investigation of forgivable loans given from a private foundation to law school faculty, even though the Texas attorney general signed off on a previous investigation, the results of which placed no blame on Powers — who served as dean of the law school before becoming UT president — for “lack of transparency” related to the loans.

According to the Tribune story, Hall shares his own lack-of-transparency moment: When he was being vetted after the governor nominated him as a regent, he omitted mention of several lawsuits to which he had been a party, despite a requirement he do so.  

“The lawsuits themselves may or may not prove embarrassing to Hall, but the failure to disclose them provides fodder to critics who think the UT regents are on a ‘witch hunt’ to hurt its flagship university and take out its leader,” the Tribune reports.

Among those “critics” the Tribune article cites are state senators.

In December, when covering the development that Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, failed to disclose his connection to a company the board had selected to build a new children’s hospital — at the time the company the board selected had a pending business deal with a company Powell co-founded with his son — this editorial board said, “for a public official, the appearance of a conflict of interest often drains public trust as irrevocably as a verified one.” The same observation applies to Hall’s omissions from his regent application. Powell didn’t view his connection to the hospital as relevant information. 

Yesterday, in response to the Tribune’s questions, Hall called his omissions unintentional. “I do not recall the specifics,” Hall wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I have been asked by the governor’s office to supplement my disclosure and will do so shortly.” The brevity of Hall’s explanation starkly contrasts with his aggressive pursuit of Powers’ possible vulnerabilities due to the law school loans. We are disappointed and disillusioned by Hall’s apparent failure to disclose information, but we also aren’t surprised.

The missing Hall lawsuits is the latest development in the power struggle between the Board of Regents, the Texas Senate and the UT administration, yet not a decisive one. This development suggests two things we already suspected: First, the regents consider themselves policy-setting, appointed judges. In their view, their sole responsibility is to scrutinize administrators they are charged with overseeing. Second, they do not view themselves as public officials who should be subject to the same scrutiny as others. But that scrutiny is what the Legislature is applying, evident in one state senator’s sharp comments in reaction to the disclosures about Hall’s omissions. 

“Clearly this was withheld. It would seem to indicate Mr. Hall felt like it was disqualifying for his nomination,” Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told the Tribune. “Withholding that, I think, is a very, very serious thing.”

The regents, the administration and the legislators in this fight are digging for dirt on one another. In our online age when the splashiest “gotcha” moment has the potential to derail a career, each side attempts to catch the other lest they be caught themselves.

After all that has happened, distrust, and possible loathing, must thrive among the politicians, the regents and the administration. As this brawl gets uglier, we expect Gov. Rick Perry and certain members of the Legislature to emerge from behind the curtain and openly enter the arena.     

We don’t know who will win and who will lose. But we know this fight is no longer about the long-term goals of this University, but rather about the short-term employment and power grabs of those who govern it.

 

SALT LAKE CITY — A plane carrying three Utah men crashed shortly after takeoff in Texas Saturday, killing all three aboard,
authorities said.

The Piper PA-46 had taken off from an airport near Paris, Texas, around 8 a.m. when it went down.

All three men worked for Utah-based Celtic Bank, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

There was no immediate word on the cause of the crash. The Department of Public Safety said it was reportedly foggy and the plane attempted to turn back toward the airport before descending rapidly and crashing.

The plane burst into flames upon impact, FAA spokesman Roland Herwig told the Tribune.

UT graduate student Josh Haney mingles with Laura Starr at a cocktail party held before the Insidious screening at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum Tuesday night.

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Tribune is using film to shed light on the potential flaws of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man whose guilt has remained in question since his 2004 execution.

“Incendiary: The Willingham Case” is a documentary directed by radio-television-film lecturer Stephen Mims and School of Law alumnus Joe Bailey Jr. that deals with the controversy surrounding the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. The Tribune hosted an advance screening and conversation Tuesday about the documentary.

Willingham’s three daughters died in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas in December 1991. He was later convicted of arson and executed in February 2004 based on scientific evidence criticized by experts as outdated.

Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, said the film is not about the death penalty, but about the forensic science used to convict criminals.

“We all want to be sure that the system works well and that the facts and evidence are true facts,” Smith said.

He said the question of whether the criminal justice system in the state is functioning properly is an important issue for Texans, and the Tribune is eager to spur that conversation.

The Tribune held a panel discussion after the screening with the filmmakers as well as former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission Sam Bassett, former Gov. Mark White and Corsicana City Attorney Terry Jacobson.

Basset said politicians concerned themselves so much with looking bad for the mistakes of the past that they overlooked the need to correct them in the present.

White said the film clearly pointed at the fragility of the criminal justice system and the difficulty it faces adapting to the kind of scientific innovations that revealed the flaws in Willingham’s conviction.

He said that the importance of the case was not whether Willingham was guilty but rather whether the state had been able to legitimately prove him guilty.

The two directors both found personal connections to the case. Mims said the film emerged from a conversation he and Bailey had in Fall 2009 based on a New Yorker article on the case.

“We were hoping to get enough to illustrate the story, to make it visual,” Mims said.

Mims said the team can’t finish the final version of the film until the case concludes that is re-analyzing all the evidence.

Bailey said he and Mims attempted to weave together the politics, science and law surrounding the issue in a dramatic way.

“The film is almost like a battle between my brain and my emotions, and that struggle presents itself throughout the film,” Bailey said.

He said this struggle was key to the emotionally dense case, in which the search for valid scientific evidence can come into conflict with the beliefs of those directly affected.