Kate McGee

Whistleblowers accuse Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of distorting testimony to get their lawsuit dismissed

"Whistleblowers say Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is distorting testimony to get their lawsuit dismissed" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A group of former top aides to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reiterated in a court filing this week that they believe Paxton committed crimes while in office, and suggested that Paxton is intentionally mischaracterizing witness testimony in their whistleblower case against him for political reasons.

The aides are taking issue with a brief and a press release issued on June 2 where Paxton's lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to throw out the case four aides filed against the state's top lawyer in which they allege he fired them for reporting his alleged illegal behavior to federal and state authorities. Paxton, who has denied the charges, said he fired aides last year because they had gone “rogue" and made “unsubstantiated claims" against him.

Paxton's lawyer said in June that in a trial court hearing on March 1, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer would not say he specifically saw Paxton commit a crime, but only that he had “potential concerns" about Paxton's dealings with real estate developer Nate Paul. Paul is a political donor and friend of Paxton who the whistleblowers allege Paxton helped with his legal issues in exchange for personal favors.

Paxton's lawyers argued that the appeals court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General's plea to dismiss because the court doesn't have the jurisdiction to hear the case.

But in a new brief filed on Monday by the whistleblowers' lawyers, they argue Paxton's lawyers took the exchange they cited out of context to argue Mateer never saw Paxton commit a crime. They said Mateer's comment was in response to a specific question about whether any employees raised concerns about Paxton's behavior in June 2020, three months before former employees reported Paxton's behavior to law enforcement.

“This claim distorts Mateer's testimony," the brief states. “In fact, Mateer testified unequivocally that he believed at the time of Appellees' FBI report—and still believes today—that Paxton committed crimes, including abuse of office and bribery." They also point out that Mateer signed a letter on Oct. 1, 2020 that alerted the attorney general's office that the whistleblowers had reported Paxton's behavior to the FBI, further proving Mateer believed Paxton had violated the law.

Mateer, who is not a plaintiff in the case, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Paxton's lawyer.

The whistleblowers' attorneys say the AG's office did not accurately explain to the appeals court that Mateer's potential concerns were specifically in response to a question about Paxton and Paul's relationship in June 2020.

“OAG took even greater license in its [June] press release, predicting victory because its brief shows that Mateer “swore under oath that Paxton committed no actual crimes," the lawyers wrote in a footnote in the brief. “Given the … OAG's mischaracterization of what Mateer 'swore under oath,' perhaps this portion of OAG's brief was written for an audience other than the justices of this Court."

A lawyer in the case told The Texas Tribune they believed the press release was written for Paxton's supporters and Texas voters, rather than to make a legal argument.

Paxton issued the press release hours before Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced he is running against Paxton for attorney general in the 2022 Republican primary. Since then, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman has also announced her candidacy for the position.

Paxton will likely face sharp criticism for this lawsuit during the primary campaign, as well as the six-year-old felony fraud case in which prosecutors claim Paxton persuaded investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing he would be compensated for it while he was in the Texas House of Representatives.

The lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to consider this appeal without hearing oral arguments. If the court decides to hear arguments, the aides requested it happen as quickly as possible.

The four former aides also laid out in detail in the filing the specific instances where they believe Paxton broke the law.

In February, they alleged in a court filing that Paul helped Paxton remodel his house and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair. In return, the aides allege, Paxton used his office to help Paul's business interests, investigate Paul's adversaries and help settle a lawsuit. The filing in February was the most detailed explanation as to what the former aides believe Paxton's motivations were in what they describe as a “bizarre, obsessive use of power."

They also alleged Paxton improperly intervened in multiple open records requests to help Paul gain access to government documents after his company had been raided by the FBI.

“Paxton personally spoke to Paul about the subject matter; told [whistleblower Ryan M.] Vassar that he did not want to assist the FBI or DPS; took personal possession for several days of files that OAG could not officially release to Paul; and specifically directed the release of the FBI's unredacted brief to Paul," the brief states.

The whistleblowers also allege Paxton used AG resources to help Paul in a lawsuit filed against him by an Austin charity and pressured staffers to issue a legal opinion that would help Paul, despite the fact the ruling was inconsistent with previous opinions. The whistleblowers say in the court filing that they reported their concerns to multiple authorities and “spent several hours with two FBI agents telling what they had observed, answering questions, and discussing reasonable inferences they could draw."

The brief also rejects Paxton's repeated argument that he cannot be sued under the Whistleblower Act because he is not a public employee.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/22/texas-ken-paxton-whistleblowers/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Senate passes bill aimed at banning critical race theory

"Texas' divisive bill limiting how students learn about current events and historic racism passed by Senate" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

After hours of passionate debate about how Texas teachers can instruct school children about America's history of subjugating people of color, the state Senate early Saturday morning advanced a new version of a controversial bill aimed at banning critical race theory in public and open-enrollment charter schools.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, introduced a reworked version of House Bill 3979 that also requires the State Board of Education to develop new state standards for civics education with a corresponding teacher training program to start in the 2022-23 school year. The Senate approved the bill in an 18-13 vote over opposition from educators, school advocacy groups and senators of color who worry it limits necessary conversation about the roles race and racism play in U.S. history.

The bill now heads back to the Texas House, which can either accept the Senate's changes or call for a conference committee made up of members from both chambers to iron out their differences.

The Senate-approved version revives specific essential curriculum standards that students are required to understand, including the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. But it stripped more than two dozen requirements to study the writings or stories of multiple women and people of color that were also previously approved by the House, despite attempts by Democratic senators to reinstate some of those materials in the bill.

The Senate did vote to include the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 13th 14th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the complexity of the relationship between Texas and Mexico to the list of required instruction.

Yet the most controversial aspects of the bill remain, including that teachers must explore current events from multiple positions without giving “deference to any one perspective." It also bars students from getting course credit for civic engagement efforts, including lobbying for legislation or other types of political activism.

Educators, historians and school advocacy groups who fiercely oppose the bill remained unswayed by arguments that the bill is merely meant to ensure students are taught that one race or gender is not superior to another.

“Giving equal weight to all sides concerning current events would mean that the El Paso terrorist ideology would have to be given equal weight to the idea that racism is wrong," said Trinidad Gonzales, a history professor and assistant chair of the dual enrollment program at South Texas College. “That is the problem, white supremacy would be ignored or given deference if addressed. That is the problem with the bill."

Hughes denied that the bill would require teachers give moral equivalency to perpetrators of horrific violence.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement to the Tribune that Texas schools should emphasize “traditional history, focusing on the ideas that make our country great and the story of how our country has risen to meet those ideals."

But Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, raised concerns on the Senate floor that the historical documents required in the bill only reflect the priorities of white senators.

“There were documents that were chosen, not by Hispanics, not by African Americans in this body, but by Anglos," he said. “No input from us in terms of what founding documents should in fact be considered by all children in this state."

Hughes also told members there have been instances in various school districts where parents have raised concerns about lessons where students have been taught one race is inherently superior to another. He pointed to a particular instance in Highland Park Independent School District where parents were concerned about a book called Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.

“We do have teaching now that we want to get out that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, or the individual by virtue of the individual's race or sex is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously," Hughes said. “I think we agree we don't want that taught in schools. That's why we need this bill."

But Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, pushed back against that premise, reading a passage from the book's author about its intent to help children dismantle white supremacy.

"My point is that we cannot just pick and choose what we are going to teach as history and expect to change things and make things better," Miles said. “It doesn't work that way. This bill is eliminating and excluding some things, and including what you want to say."

Educators also worry the legislation will change how teachers can engage students in hard, but important, conversations about American current events that teachers often use to trace back to historical events.

“Kids get engaged and kids want to dig into your class when they get the relevance and they have some buy-in," said Jocelyn Foshay, a Dallas Independent School District middle school teacher.

The bill, which mirrors legislation making its way through state legislatures across the country, has been coined the Critical Race Theory bill, though neither the House or Senate versions explicitly mention the academic discipline, which studies the way race and racism has impacted America's legal and social systems.

The latest version of the bill also reintroduced an explicit ban of the teaching of The New York Times' 1619 Project, which examines U.S. history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil, marking that year as the country's foundational date. That 2019 work from journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize and was recently thrust back into the national spotlight after the University of North Carolina did not grant her tenure after conserative criticism of her work.

“To suggest that America is so racist at its core to be irredeemable and to suggest that people based on the color of their skin can never overcome biases and can never treat each other fairly, that's a real problem," Hughes said of the project.

Educators also worry the bill language is too vague and will allow students and parents to potentially use the legislation against them if they disagree with how they're teaching history curriculum, regardless of the primary sources and historical texts teachers use to back up their lessons. It's also unclear who would enforce these requirements and how schools or districts would handle these issues.

“It makes it so open for anyone to interpret it the way they want to interpret it," said Juan Carmona, a history teacher in the Rio Grande Valley town of Donna

He sees this bill as a pushback to including more historical voices and perspectives in the teaching of history. In recent years, Texas started to offer Mexican American and African American studies courses to all high school students.

Over the past year, the phrase “critical race theory" has turned into a Republican rallying cry in an apparent pushback against increased conversations about diversity and inclusion and unpacking implicit bias.

This week, 20 state attorneys general sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and expressed concern with critical race theory and, specifically, the 1619 Project. The letter says critical race theory analyzes history through “the narrow prism of race."

Georgina Perez, who serves on the State Board of Education, slammed the bill and its supporters, saying they are using buzzwords for political gain rather than to improve education.

“They have no idea what critical race theory is, what it does, who the founders are. They've never read a book, much less a paragraph on it," said Perez. “I understand that maybe some white people are uncomfortable. Well, dammit, when Black people were being lynched, they sure as hell weren't comfortable. Native Americans being removed from their land and Mexican Americans being shot to death in the middle of the night, that shit wasn't comfortable either."

Erin Douglas contributed to this story.

Disclosure: New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/22/texas-critical-race-theory-legislature/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas’ divisive bill restricting how students learn about current events, history, and racism passed by Senate

After hours of passionate debate about how Texas teachers can instruct school children about America's history of subjugating people of color, the state Senate early Saturday morning advanced a new version of a controversial bill aimed at banning critical race theory in public and open-enrollment charter schools.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, introduced a reworked version of House Bill 3979 that also requires the State Board of Education to develop new state standards for civics education with a corresponding teacher training program to start in the 2022-23 school year. The Senate approved the bill in an 18-13 vote over opposition from educators, school advocacy groups and senators of color who worry it limits necessary conversation about the roles race and racism play in U.S. history.

The bill now heads back to the Texas House, which can either accept the Senate's changes or call for a conference committee made up of members from both chambers to iron out their differences.

The Senate-approved version revives specific essential curriculum standards that students are required to understand, including the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. But it stripped more than two dozen requirements to study the writings or stories of multiple women and people of color that were also previously approved by the House, despite attempts by Democratic senators to reinstate some of those materials in the bill.

The Senate did vote to include the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 13th 14th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the complexity of the relationship between Texas and Mexico to the list of required instruction.

Yet the most controversial aspects of the bill remain, including that teachers must explore current events from multiple positions without giving "deference to any one perspective." It also bars students from getting course credit for civic engagement efforts, including lobbying for legislation or other types of political activism.

Educators, historians and school advocacy groups who fiercely oppose the bill remained unswayed by arguments that the bill is merely meant to ensure students are taught that one race or gender is not superior to another.

"Giving equal weight to all sides concerning current events would mean that the El Paso terrorist ideology would have to be given equal weight to the idea that racism is wrong," said Trinidad Gonzales, a history professor and assistant chair of the dual enrollment program at South Texas College. "That is the problem, white supremacy would be ignored or given deference if addressed. That is the problem with the bill."

Hughes denied that the bill would require teachers give moral equivalency to perpetrators of horrific violence.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement to the Tribune that Texas schools should emphasize "traditional history, focusing on the ideas that make our country great and the story of how our country has risen to meet those ideals."

But Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, raised concerns on the Senate floor that the historical documents required in the bill only reflect the priorities of white senators.

"There were documents that were chosen, not by Hispanics, not by African Americans in this body, but by Anglos," he said. "No input from us in terms of what founding documents should in fact be considered by all children in this state."

Hughes also told members there have been instances in various school districts where parents have raised concerns about lessons where students have been taught one race is inherently superior to another. He pointed to a particular instance in Highland Park Independent School District where parents were concerned about a book called Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.

"We do have teaching now that we want to get out that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, or the individual by virtue of the individual's race or sex is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously," Hughes said. "I think we agree we don't want that taught in schools. That's why we need this bill."

But Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, pushed back against that premise, reading a passage from the book's author about its intent to help children dismantle white supremacy.

"My point is that we cannot just pick and choose what we are going to teach as history and expect to change things and make things better," Miles said. "It doesn't work that way. This bill is eliminating and excluding some things, and including what you want to say."

Educators also worry the legislation will change how teachers can engage students in hard, but important, conversations about American current events that teachers often use to trace back to historical events.

"Kids get engaged and kids want to dig into your class when they get the relevance and they have some buy-in," said Jocelyn Foshay, a Dallas Independent School District middle school teacher.

The bill, which mirrors legislation making its way through state legislatures across the country, has been coined the Critical Race Theory bill, though neither the House or Senate versions explicitly mention the academic discipline, which studies the way race and racism has impacted America's legal and social systems.

The latest version of the bill also reintroduced an explicit ban of the teaching of The New York Times' 1619 Project, which examines U.S. history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil, marking that year as the country's foundational date. That 2019 work from journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize and was recently thrust back into the national spotlight after the University of North Carolina did not grant her tenure after conserative criticism of her work.

"To suggest that America is so racist at its core to be irredeemable and to suggest that people based on the color of their skin can never overcome biases and can never treat each other fairly, that's a real problem," Hughes said of the project.

Educators also worry the bill language is too vague and will allow students and parents to potentially use the legislation against them if they disagree with how they're teaching history curriculum, regardless of the primary sources and historical texts teachers use to back up their lessons. It's also unclear who would enforce these requirements and how schools or districts would handle these issues.

"It makes it so open for anyone to interpret it the way they want to interpret it," said Juan Carmona, a history teacher in the Rio Grande Valley town of Donna

He sees this bill as a pushback to including more historical voices and perspectives in the teaching of history. In recent years, Texas started to offer Mexican American and African American studies courses to all high school students.

Over the past year, the phrase "critical race theory" has turned into a Republican rallying cry in an apparent pushback against increased conversations about diversity and inclusion and unpacking implicit bias.

This week, 20 state attorneys general sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and expressed concern with critical race theory and, specifically, the 1619 Project. The letter says critical race theory analyzes history through "the narrow prism of race."

Georgina Perez, who serves on the State Board of Education, slammed the bill and its supporters, saying they are using buzzwords for political gain rather than to improve education.

"They have no idea what critical race theory is, what it does, who the founders are. They've never read a book, much less a paragraph on it," said Perez. "I understand that maybe some white people are uncomfortable. Well, dammit, when Black people were being lynched, they sure as hell weren't comfortable. Native Americans being removed from their land and Mexican Americans being shot to death in the middle of the night, that shit wasn't comfortable either."

NCAA announces it will not hold events in states that discriminate against trans students

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors said it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination. The Monday warning sets the stage for a political fight with multiple states, including Texas, that are considering bills in their legislatures that would require students to play sports with only teammates who align with their biological sex.

“Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport," the NCAA statement said. “Our clear expectation as the Association's top governing body is that all student-athletes will be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them."

Texas lawmakers have filed six bills that target transgender students' sports participation — but only two of those bills would affect colleges and university sports in addition to K-12. While most of the proposals have not yet received a hearing, one bill, which was named a Senate priority, recently advanced out of a Senate State Affairs Committee to the full chamber for a vote. It would require the University Interscholastic League, which runs K-12 sports, to amend its rules to only let students play sports with students who match their biological sex as determined at birth or on their birth certificate. If passed, it would go in effect Sept. 1.

Reps. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, and Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, who authored the two bills affecting college and university student athletes, were not immediately available for comment. Their bills have not yet been scheduled for hearings.

Lawmakers in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee have already passed bills that would bar transgender girls from participating in women's sports. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 30 states are considering similar bills that would limit transgender students sports participation.

Texas lawmakers are also considering a bill that would classify providing children with puberty suppression drugs or performing gender reassignment surgery as child abuse. Another bill would revoke a doctor's medical license if they perform a sex reassignment surgery for the purpose of gender reassignment to people under 18 years old or prescribe “puberty blockers." Puberty blockers are reversible drugs often used by a transgender child who wants to delay puberty, including changes such as starting a period or deepening voice. The bill would also prohibit gender-confirming surgeries and hormone therapies. The Senate State Affairs Committee heard testimony on both bills Monday, but took no action on the legislation.

The recent NCAA women's basketball tournament was held in Texas. Multiple games in the 2022 NCAA men's March Madness tournament are already scheduled to be played in Fort Worth and San Antonio.

During previous legislative sessions, Texas Republicans, like those in other states, unsuccessfully pursued so-called “bathroom bills" that would prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity. Business leaders at the time came forward with their opposition to the anti-transgender legislation —a trend that is re-emerging this session.

The NCAA's statement comes as corporations are vocalizing their opposition to other conservative efforts, including proposed changes to Texas voting laws. Multiple Texas based companies, including Dell and American Airlines, spoke out against the proposed law earlier this month.

LGBTQ advocates said conservatives across the country are latching onto issues related to athletics and health care as the latest way to spread fear about transgender children using inaccurate information, despite opposition from medical and athletic associations.

Equality Texas held a press conference outside the Capitol building Monday afternoon, where transgender Texans and parents of transgender children spoke about their efforts to stop the passage of anti-trans legislation.

“We hope that Texans realize what's really happening, which is essentially adults in power bullying trans kids," said Emmett Schelling, the executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas.

“What they are doing is just unconscionable. These bills are just bad lawmaking," said Lisa Stanton, a Houston resident and the mother of a transgender girl. “Instead of focusing on issues that focus on and affect all Texans, these legislators are trying to pass bills that harm children, rather than help them."

While the legislation has seen some traction in the upper chamber, it's unclear whether there will be support in the House, where similar bills have yet to get assigned a committee hearing.

In the past, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has pushed back against bills that would weaken protections for LGBTQ people. After the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that removed nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired, had the language reinstated.

Phelan said in an interview at the time that he was "done talking about bashing on the gay community."

"It's completely unacceptable," he said. "This is 2019."

In an interview with the Tribune in January, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who filed the priority bill and others on the issue, argued the changes were necessary to preserve Title IX.

He said transgender girls in particular — whom he referred to in an interview as “individuals who are quote confused" — could have an unfair advantage in strength and ability.

“This is purely 100% devoted to the preservation of Title IX and allowing women to compete against women in their peer groups in that biological category, so they know they can have an equal and fighting chance based on ability and not over some political narrative of the day that undermines fairness," he said.

Perry declined to comment through his chief of staff about the NCAA action.

On Monday, Perry said during the State Affairs Committee hearing that the bills were trying to protect children who don't possess the maturity to understand the impact of these decisions.

“God created us all in his own image. ...We went outside that creation by our own accord and suffer with some of the consequences of being outside his will since the garden," Perry said, referring to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. “This is another one of those issues that we find ourselves entangled in that unfortunately, the damage is to our most precious, precious being our children, not our personal lineage, but all of God's children and the children in this state."

But during testimony, at least one transgender Texan child pushed back on Perry's arguments.

“God made me. God loves me for who I am, and God does not make mistakes," Kai Shappley, a 10-year-old transgender girl, told the committee. Shappley and her mother, Kimberly, have fought anti-trans bills proposed by the legislature for several years now. The family moved from Pearland to Austin because of discriminatory laws that would not allow Kai to use the women's restroom.

"I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices," Shappley said.

Duncan Agnew and Megan Munce contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Dell and Equality Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, April 12, 2021: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of the executive director for the Transgender Education Network of Texas. He is Emmett Schelling, not Shelling.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/04/12/ncaa-transgender-laws-texas-legislature/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

'UT needs rich donors': Emails show wealthy alumni demanding school stand up to 'cancel culture' or lose donations

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The Texas Longhorns had just lost to rival Oklahoma for the third time in a row — this time after a quadruple overtime.

The bruising loss was quickly overshadowed when then-Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger stood alone on the field for the playing of the university's alma mater song "The Eyes of Texas," a postgame tradition. The rest of the team, who typically stay to sing the song with fans at the end of games, had retreated from the field.

For many University of Texas at Austin students who had spent months protesting and petitioning the school to get rid of "The Eyes of Texas," it was gutting to see the student leader seemingly taking a stand. (Ehlinger later said he was only lingering alone on the field to talk with coaches.) The song — played to the tune of "I've been working on the railroad" — was historically performed at campus minstrel shows, and the title is linked to a saying from Confederate Army Commander Robert E. Lee.

But hundreds of alumni and donors were more concerned about why Ehlinger was alone. They blasted off emails to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell, calling the image of the abandoned quarterback "disgusting," "embarrassing" and "disturbing." They demanded that the school stand up to "cancel culture" and firmly get behind the song — or else donors were going to walk away.

An illustration of an email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request.

Email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request. Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune

"My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics. This could very easily be rescinded if things don't drastically change around here," wrote one donor in October. His name was redacted by UT-Austin, citing open records laws that protect certain donor identities. "Has everyone become oblivious of who supports athletics??"

Hartzell had already publicly stated the university would keep the song, but hundreds of emails obtained through public records requests show that decision didn't quell the furor among some of the most ardent supporters of "The Eyes."

From June to late October, over 70% of the nearly 300 people who emailed Hartzell's office about "The Eyes" demanded the school keep playing it. Around 75 people in emails explicitly threatened to stop supporting the school financially, calling on the university to take a heavier hand with students and athletes they believed were disrespecting university tradition by protesting it.

"The Eyes of Texas is non-negotiable," wrote another graduate who said they've had season tickets since 1990 and whose name was redacted by the university. "If it is not kept and fully embraced, I will not be donating any additional money to athletics or the university or attending any events."

This month, a university committee formed to document the song's history is expected to release its highly anticipated report, likely reigniting the debate within the school community.

While those who emailed represent a fraction of the more than 540,000 UT-Austin alumni, their threats had some university fundraisers sounding the alarms.

"[Alumni] are pulling planned gifts, canceling donations, walking away from causes and programs that have been their passion for years, even decades and turning away in disgust. Last night one texted me at 1:00 am, trying to find a way to revoke a 7-figure donation," President of the Longhorn Alumni Band Charitable Fund Board of Trustees Kent Kostka wrote to a group of administrators, including Hartzell. "This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. Real damage is being done every day by the ongoing silence."

Alumni and donors threatened to cancel season tickets, end donations and boycott games. They complained that Hartzell was not forcefully defending the song and school traditions enough, accusing him of cowing to political correctness.

"It is disgraceful to see the lack of unity and our fiercest competitor Sam E[h]linger standing nearly alone," wrote one graduate whose name was also redacted by the university to protect the identity of a donor. "It is symbolic of the disarray of this football program which you inherited. The critical race theory garbage that has been embraced by the football program and the university is doing massive irreparable damage."

Among the donors who reached out was billionaire businessman and alumnus Bob Rowling, whose holding company owns Omni Hotels and previously owned Gold's Gym and whose name graces a building within the McCombs School of Business.

An illustration of an email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request.

TK TK Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune An illustration of an email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request.

TK TK. Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune Emails sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request. Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune.

"I am not advising you or taking any position regarding this issue right now, other than to say 'The Eyes' needs to be our song," Rowling wrote to Hartzell. "I AM wanting you to be aware of the 'talk about town' regarding UT. There are a lot of folks on this email chain who love UT and are in positions of influence."

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Rowling stood by his email and said Hartzell should be cognizant of donors' wishes.

"My advice to Jay was these alumni have given and are giving," Rowling told the Tribune. "We're in the middle of a capital campaign right now. ...We're raising billions of dollars right now. If you want to dry that up immediately, cancel 'The Eyes of Texas.'"

Many of the emails were dismissive or hostile toward students.

"UT needs rich donors who love The Eyes of Texas more than they need one crop of irresponsible and uninformed students or faculty who won't do what they are paid to do," Steven Arnold, a retired administrative law judge and UT-Austin law school graduate, wrote to Hartzell. When reached for comment, Arnold said he had not donated to the university in recent years and has been completely turned off of college football after the events of the last year.

Learn from the past

Hartzell was explicit in July that "The Eyes of Texas" would remain a university tradition, but said the entire school community must try to understand its origins.

"'The Eyes of Texas' should not only unite us, but hold all of us accountable to our institution's core values. But we first must own the history," Hartzell said in a July letter to the university community.

Commitment to the song has been echoed by the Board of Regents and by Steve Sarkisian, the new football coach who was hired in January.

From the start, Sarkisian signaled he would take a different approach than former coach Tom Herman, who said he would respect players who did not want to stay to sing the song.

"I know this much," Sarkisian said, "'The Eyes of Texas' is our school song. We're going to sing that song. We're going to sing that proudly."

Criticism about the song has percolated for years, but this summer as protests swept cities across the nation over police brutality against Black people in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, students demanded universities shed relics of the past that memorialize racist figures.

Before the season started, student athletes threatened to stop showing up at donor events if the university didn't take action and many players left the field when "The Eyes" started playing after the first two home games of the season. In September, students started a petition to boycott the song coinciding with a social media campaign called "Rewrite, not Reclaim."

"If something offends a certain demographic of people, and they've been outspoken about it, and they have every right to be offended by it, I think we should be listening to them," said Madison Morris, a freshman who is part of the Longhorn Athletic Agency within UT-Austin student government.

In early October, Hartzell announced Richard Reddick, a professor and associate dean in the College of Education, would chair a committee to review and document the history of "The Eyes of Texas," providing options for how the school can share and learn from its past — even as it had no intention of abandoning the song.

The committee announcement caused some alumni to again question whether the university was leaving the door open on the song. Rhetoric among donors and alumni intensified as pleas to keep the song over the summer turned into frustration that Hartzell needed to take a more aggressive approach. They demanded students and players be required to participate in the university tradition. Some of the emails were racially charged.

An illustration of an email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request.

Email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request. Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune

"It's time for you to put the foot down and make it perfectly clear that the heritage of Texas will not be lost," wrote another donor who graduated in 1986. Their name was also redacted by UT-Austin. "It is sad that it is offending the blacks. As I said before the blacks are free and it's time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor."

At least two people argued that because the Black student population at UT-Austin is small, their voices should not outweigh the larger wishes of the alumni base.

"Less than 6% of our current student body is black," wrote Larry Wilkinson, a donor who graduated in 1970, quoting a statistic UT-Austin officials have stated they're working to improve. "The tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog….. and the dog must instead stand up for what is right. Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school ….NOW!"

Wilkinson reiterated his opinions in an interview with the Tribune. "Everything in life all comes back to money," he said. He said he did not get a personal response to his email from Hartzell, only a generic message that said the song would remain.

Trial by fire

The controversy of "The Eyes" has been a trial by fire of sorts for Hartzell, who started as interim president in April and was officially offered the job in September.

In an interview with the Tribune and follow up emails last fall, Hartzell acknowledged the fierce debate the song had created.

"Many believe the song is a positive unifying force that inspires Longhorns to do their best. We also recognize that some feel differently. This is why we have taken the approach that we did, conducting an in-depth study of the history and origin of the song," he wrote in an email. "My hope is that with clarity of the facts, we can begin the process of learning about and reckoning with 'The Eyes of Texas' in a way that can be a model for having difficult conversations, bridging divides and understanding diverse points of view."

An illustration of an email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request.

Email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request. Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune

Hartzell would not say whether donors played a role in his decision to keep the song, but emails show that staffers in his office closely monitored and tallied the messages from people weighing in on the song.

"Went through the [Eyes of Texas]-themed mail inbox again this morning," Gary Susswein, former chief communications officer, wrote to Hartzell and his deputy, Nancy Brazzil, in mid-October. "Nearly 100 percent support for the Eyes of Texas."

After Hartzell sent out a letter announcing the creation of the committee to study "The Eyes," Susswein also documented the reaction on social media.

"Opponents of the song worry the upcoming work will amount to only a justification for keeping 'The Eyes' intact," Susswein wrote. "Those who favor the song say they'll continue singing it regardless of what the university may decide."

Recently, Texas A&M University examined what the impact on donations could be if they removed a campus statue of a former university president and Confederate general, Lawrence Sullivan Ross. The university has been embroiled in similarly tense debate over the monument there. According to the report, interviews with fundraising groups at Texas A&M found that the university could expect a short-term drop, but long-term fundraising would likely remain unaffected.

A UT-Austin spokesperson said they have not done a similar review.

Meanwhile, Hartzell has skillfully avoided sharing his personal opinions on "The Eyes" in interviews. But in emails, he shared his feelings that the raging debate had been weighing on him.

"I woke up yesterday, and my dog had pooped on my kitchen floor," he responded to a friendly alumnus who emailed him applauding his leadership during the firestorm. "I thought that was a metaphor for my week!"

Emails show the issue privately consumed the president's office, even as school was reopening during a pandemic.

When an email from a UT-Austin parent sharing her son's mental health issues appeared to go unintentionally unanswered, a student affairs employee asked if Hartzell's office wanted to respond directly. But the president's office declined.

"If you think we can help [redacted], then please proceed," wrote Geoff Leavenworth, a former communications director at UT-Austin who was hired temporarily to help the office with correspondence this fall. "I'm afraid The Eyes of Texas issue is requiring a lot of bandwidth right now."

Cancel culture

In one email chain, alumnus Trey Hoffman circulated a letter in support of keeping the song which garnered 257 signatures. He also shared criticism and worries about the committee tapped to review the history of "The Eyes of Texas," headed by Reddick. The email contained a large photograph of Reddick, who is Black.

"This professor is in charge of the team/ that tells us whether the song is racist or not? His Twitter account is filled with race baiting and cry baby [Black Lives Matter] junk," the caption below the photo read. "UT better get it together and use its brains, not this biased 'victim' professor at UT!"

Hoffman's email was flagged for Hartzell's attention noting his history of donations to the school.

"His opinions are uninformed and inaccurate," wrote Scott Rabenold, vice president of development, who pointed out Hoffman has donated $70,000 to Longhorn athletics. "But his message is/will resonating."

When reached for comment, Hoffman walked back his criticism of Reddick. He said he didn't author the comments in his email criticizing Reddick, but did copy them from a post he saw online.

"I happen to believe that Professor Reddick is a long time supporter of UT and its traditions," he said. "While his committee has not completed its report, I am hopeful that they will produce a positive outcome that everyone can live with."

Emails show other alumni argued the committee promoted "Marxist ideology" and called it a product of "cancel culture." Multiple alumni who emailed the university called students "snowflakes," a term made popular by the alt-right to criticize progressives they think are too sensitive.

An illustration of an email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request.

Email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request. Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune

Nearly a dozen emails questioned whether conservative voices would be represented on the committee and accused the university of silencing non-liberal students on campus.

"I truly hope that you value diversity of opinion...but if you are similar to today's academia you will shut down conservative viewpoints and true facts," wrote one alumni identified as Myers, who called themselves a "disgusted alumni" from the class of 1984. "I do not support UT anymore (even though my family has 3 generations of graduates) because it has become a bastion of far liberal indoctrination and only teaches one point of view...liberalism. Sorry, but it is clear at UT that the white male is totally screwed unless you are 'woke'."

In an interview, Reddick said he's mostly received support and encouragement from people over the committee's work, but said he was prepared for the split opinions.

"I do public scholarship all the time. I'm used to people having strong opinions about what's done, and I'm used to people maybe not really approaching with open minds," he said. "But this is a collective effort. It's not the work of Rich Reddick. It's the work of the 25 people in our community. And we stand behind the work that we do."

While the vast majority of those who emailed pleaded with UT-Austin to keep the song, a small handful of alumni urged the president to get rid of the alma mater, with a few threatening to pull donations unless the song went away.

And some creative alumni suggested simply rewriting the lyrics to the disputed song.

Alumnus Ken Knowles suggested renaming the song to "The Might of Texas."

He submitted the lyrics: "The Might of Texas is upon you/Hail the Orange and White/ The might of Texas is upon you/Together we will fight."

Another alumna and her grandmother also submitted revised lyrics which included a new second stanza, "Do your best to be a Texan — From night till early in the morn! The skies of Texas are above you, Till Gabriel blows his horn!"

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, UT-Austin's McCombs School of Business, Texas A&M University and Robert B. Rowling have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/01/ut-eyes-of-texas-donors-emails/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas leaders failed to heed warnings that left the state's power grid vulnerable to winter extremes: experts

By Erin Douglas, Kate McGee and Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Feb. 17, 2021

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Millions of Texans have gone days without power or heat in subfreezing temperatures brought on by snow and ice storms. Limited regulations on companies that generate power and a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight help explain the crisis, energy and policy experts told The Texas Tribune.

While Texas Republicans were quick to pounce on renewable energy and to blame frozen wind turbines, the natural gas, nuclear and coal plants that provide most of the state's energy also struggled to operate during the storm. Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state's power system was simply no match for the deep freeze.

“Nuclear units, gas units, wind turbines, even solar, in different ways — the very cold weather and snow has impacted every type of generator," said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.

Energy and policy experts said Texas' decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures, and choice to operate mostly isolated from other grids in the U.S. left power system unprepared for the winter crisis.

Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists. Instead, Texas prioritized the free market.

“Clearly we need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits," said Tom “Smitty" Smith, a now-retired former director of Public Citizen, an Austin-based consumer advocacy group who advocated for changes after in 2011 when Texas faced a similar energy crisis.

“Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies'] rush for profits," he said.

It is possible to “winterize" natural gas power plants, natural gas production, wind turbines and other energy infrastructure, experts said, through practices like insulating pipelines. These upgrades help prevent major interruptions in other states with regularly cold weather.

Lessons from 2011

In 2011, Texas faced a very similar storm that froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state. A decade later, Texas power generators have still not made all the investments necessary to prevent plants from tripping offline during extreme cold, experts said.

Woodfin, of ERCOT, acknowledged that there's no requirement to prepare power infrastructure for such extremely low temperatures. “Those are not mandatory, it's a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things," he said. “There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point."

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power generators in the U.S., is currently developing mandatory standards for “winterizing" energy infrastructure, a spokesperson said.

Texas politicians and regulators were warned after the 2011 storm that more “winterizing" of power infrastructure was necessary, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation shows. The large number of units that tripped offline or couldn't start during that storm “demonstrates that the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds," regulators wrote at the time. More thorough preparation for cold weather could have prevented the outages, the report said.

“This should have been addressed in 2011 by the Legislature after that market meltdown, but there was no substantial follow up," by state politicians or regulators, said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics professor at the University of Houston. “They skipped on down the road with business as usual."

ERCOT officials said that some generators implemented new winter practices after the freeze a decade ago, and new voluntary “best practices" were adopted. Woodfin said that during subsequent storms, such as in 2018, it appeared that those efforts worked. But he said this storm was even more extreme than regulators anticipated based on models developed after the 2011 storm. He acknowledged that any changes made were “not sufficient to keep these generators online," during this storm.

After temperatures plummeted and snow covered large parts of the state Sunday night, ERCOT warned increased demand might lead to short-term, rolling blackouts. Instead, huge portions of the largest cities in Texas went dark and have remained without heat or power for days. On Tuesday, nearly 60% of Houston households and businesses were without power. Of the total installed capacity to the electric grid, about 40% went offline during the storm, Woodfin said.

Climate wake-up call

Climate scientists in Texas agree with ERCOT leaders that this week's storm was unprecedented in some ways. They also say it's evidence that Texas is not prepared to handle an increasing number of more volatile and more extreme weather events.

“We cannot rely on our past to guide our future," said Dev Niyogi, a geosciences professor at the University of Texas at Austin who previously served as the state climatologist for Indiana. He noted that previous barometers are becoming less useful as states see more intense weather covering larger areas for prolonged periods of time. He said climate scientists want infrastructure design to consider a “much larger spectrum of possibilities" rather than treating these storms as a rarity, or a so-called “100-year event."

Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist at Texas Tech University, highlighted a 2018 study that showed how a warming Arctic is creating more severe polar vortex events. “It's a wake up call to say, 'What if these are getting more frequent?'" Hayhoe said. “Moving forward, that gives us even more reason to be more prepared in the future."

Still, Hayhoe and Niyogi acknowledged there's uncertainty about the connection between climate change and cold air outbreaks from the Arctic.

Other Texas officials looked beyond ERCOT. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins argued that the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry — a remit that includes natural gas wells and pipelines — prioritized commercial customers over residents by not requiring equipment to be better equipped for cold weather. The RRC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"Other states require you to have cold weather packages on your generation equipment and require you to use, either through depth or through materials, gas piping that is less likely to freeze," Jenkins said.

Texas' electricity market is also deregulated, meaning that no one company owns all the power plants, transmission lines and distribution networks. Instead, several different companies generate and transmit power, which they sell on the wholesale market to yet more players. Those power companies in turn are the ones that sell to homes and businesses. Policy experts disagree on whether a different structure would have helped Texas navigate these outages. “I don't think deregulation itself is necessarily the thing to blame here," said Josh Rhodes, a research associate at University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute.

History of isolation

Texas' grid is also mostly isolated from other areas of the country, a set up designed to avoid federal regulation. It has some connectivity to Mexico and to the Eastern U.S. grid, but those ties have limits on what they can transmit. The Eastern U.S. is also facing the same winter storm that is creating a surge in power demand. That means that Texas has been unable to get much help from other areas.

“If you're going to say you can handle it by yourself, step up and do it," said Hirs, the UH energy fellow, of the state's pursuit of an independent grid with a deregulated market. “That's the incredible failure."

Rhodes, of UT Austin, said Texas policy makers should consider more connections to the rest of the country. That, he acknowledged, could come at a higher financial cost — and so will any improvements to the grid to prevent future disasters. There's an open question as to whether Texas leadership will be willing to fund, or politically support, any of these options.

“We need to have a conversation about if we believe that we're going to have more weather events like this," Rhodes said. “On some level, it comes down to if you want a more resilient grid, we can build it, it will just cost more money. What are you willing to pay? We're going to have to confront that."

Texas Tech University, University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/17/texas-power-grid-failures/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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