UT officials soliciting political money

Regents' chair Huffines hosting reception

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Tuesday, October 05, 2004

See the letter(pdf)

Current and former officials of the University of Texas System, including Board of Regents Chairman James Huffines, last week solicited campaign contributions for a powerful member of the state House under the letterhead of a political action committee bearing the name of the UT System.

The letters sought donations of $500, $1,000 or $2,500 in return for tickets to a reception tonight at Huffines' home in the Pemberton section of West Austin for Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston. Those who were not interested in contributing were asked to check a box marked "Aggie."

Heflin, who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is facing a stiff challenge from Hubert Vo in a race that Democratic Party leaders hope could topple the 21-year veteran of the House.

"If these guys want to endorse Talmadge Heflin, they're entitled to do that. But the name of the PAC drags the university into this, in my view," said Ed Sills, who received a letter in his role as communications director of the Texas AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Vo. "I think it's pretty clear it's not in the interest of any university to start making endorsements in partisan races."

Huffines, who defended the solicitation and his role as fund-raiser host, said he was neither a member of the political committee's board nor a contributor to the committee. No one should assume he is affiliated with the committee just because he signed a letter written on its stationery, he said.

"I have hosted fund-raising events in my home for over 20 years," said Huffines, a prolific fund-raiser, primarily for Republicans. "Whoever is hosting the party usually signs the letter along with five or 10 other people. It's rather perfunctory."

Nor should anyone conclude that the letter constitutes an endorsement of Heflin, said William Cunningham, a UT-Austin marketing professor and former UT System chancellor, who signed the solicitation and chairs the political committee. Cunningham said the official name of the committee is Friends of the University PAC, but stationery was inadvertently printed with a letterhead reading "Friends of the University of Texas System PAC." Use of that stationery was discontinued when the error was discovered a few days ago, he said.

"We're pleased to support Representative Heflin's fund-raising effort," Cunningham said. "However, as a matter of policy, the PAC does not take a position as to who should be elected in any race."

Suzy Woodford, executive director of Common Cause Texas, said the fund-raisers' explanations strain credibility.

"Oh, please. Nobody but nobody raises money for somebody they do not want to be the winner," Woodford said. "And whether it was supposed to go out on that letterhead is beside the point. It went out on that letterhead.

"The message is clear. This is certainly a good way to make sure the chairman of the Appropriations Committee has a very favorable opinion of the University of Texas, that it occupies a special place in his heart. It's a shakedown to promote the University of Texas with the appropriations chair."

Besides Huffines and Cunningham, the letter was signed by Lowell Lebermann, a former UT regent; Joe Long, an investor and philanthropist; and Steve Hicks, an investor and the brother of a former regent.

The political committee was established in 1992 by UT alumni and supporters to back politicians who are friendly to higher education in general and the UT System in particular. Its bipartisan board includes numerous former regents and one current regent, John Barnhill Jr.

The committee generally raises about $215,000 in each election cycle, Cunningham said. Contributions go to Republicans and Democrats. Recent recipients of the committee's money, Cunningham said, include such Republicans as House Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Steve Ogden of Bryan, and such Democrats as Rep. Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs and Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo.

The committee has contributed $3,500 to Heflin's campaign since July. That does not count contributions for tonight's reception; contributors were asked to send checks directly to Heflin's campaign.

"It's perfectly appropriate for the chairman of the Board of Regents to host a fund-raising event for a politician," Cunningham said. "Virtually all the past chairmen of the Board of Regents have been involved in politics. No state resources will be used to support the fund-raiser. If anybody thinks it's unusual for the Board of Regents to be involved in politics, that's just a very naive perspective."

Cunningham came under fire for his ties to the political committee in 1997, when he was chancellor. He once called the 15 UT campus presidents and asked them to donate, but later said he would no longer give to the committee and suggested his colleagues also stop. He joined the committee's board after stepping down as chancellor. He said he's not aware of any contributions to the committee by current UT System employees.

Ken Ashworth, a former Texas commissioner of higher education who teaches at UT and Texas A&M University, said he sees no problem with private citizens operating a political committee outside a university but on its behalf, provided no university employees are involved. The political views of regents are unlikely to have a chilling effect on campus, he said, adding that faculty members aren't shy about disagreeing with regents.

Most universities in Texas do not have political committees named for them. Exceptions include Friends of the University of Houston and Friends of TAMU Engineering PAC, the latter using an acronym for Texas A&M University.

There is no PAC devoted to A&M as a whole or to the A&M System, said Bob Wright, a spokesman for the system.

"We would love to have one, but we don't," Wright said. "But the fact is, we've just never had private supporters get together and form a political action committee for the A&M University or for the system."