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Alleged bribes, kickbacks for law school admission at heart of Texas Southern University turmoil

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Texas Southern University, Feb. 22nd, 2012. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Unqualified students were admitted and given scholarships at the Texas Southern University law school while applications from hundreds of other law school hopefuls were never reviewed, according to the results of a university internal investigation obtained by The Texas Tribune. Cashier's checks and money orders totaling more than $13,000 were found stashed under an admission official's desk calendar, and about $32,000 of school money remains unaccounted for, the report says.

The 17-page internal audit, dated March 10, 2020, set the stage for the ouster of former Texas Southern President Austin Lane earlier this year. It also examined financial irregularities, including bribes allegedly paid to a law school admissions official, and Lane's actions in not fully disclosing the incidents to the school's governing board. The document says numerous agencies — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Harris County District Attorney's Office, the Department of Education and the Texas Rangers — have been briefed on the situation or undertaken investigations.

"TSU Administrators are actively working to support the agencies as they continue their own reviews of these matters," the document says, although it does not specify which agencies are actively investigating.

Texas Southern has not released the document and had not confirmed its veracity as of Wednesday afternoon. But the contents of the document track with preliminary findings that have been previously reported, and Lane said he had seen a 17-page report on the same topic, authored on the same date and bearing the same author.

He called the charges against him “unfounded allegations we’ve been dealing with for months.”

"I'm just happy I'm free and I'm moving on. I have nothing to respond to, I’m not there any more, I wish them well, but I think it’s important for the record there was no wrongdoing on my part."

Asked about the admissions allegations he said: "When we find out that things happen then obviously you hit the button in terms of where you go with that and that was done. And, again, no wrongdoing on my part they [the regents] admitted that, which I’m pleased, because that clears me of all of this."

Texas Southern, one of the country's largest historically black colleges, recently reached a settlement agreement with Lane — one that does not accuse him of wrongdoing — and disclosed last year that there had been "improprieties" in the university admissions process. A lengthy notice of termination notice presented to Lane, as well as the document obtained today, accuse him of failing to report allegations of fraud in the university admissions process. The termination notice did not detail all the specifics of the allegations.

The allegations covered in the internal review center on the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, which has several hundred students. The review found at least five unqualified students had been admitted to the school starting in 2019, with some receiving scholarships.

At the same time, more than 500 completed applications for the class were never reviewed by officials, including about 365 applicants who appeared to be "presumptive admits" based on their academic records and credentials.

“Many of these applicants had strong entering credentials and had even called [the] president and provost complaining that they had applied and received no response” from the law school, the document says. “It was discovered that these applications were not acted upon at all.”

The document says the dean of the law school observed students who were not formally enrolled there "attending orientation and/or attending classes. The students either had character and fitness issues; incomplete admission files; and/or did not meet the academic eligibility requirements to be enrolled in the law school." The dean gave the then-assistant dean of admissions and financial aid the chance to resign or be fired. The assistant dean did not submit a letter of resignation and was fired in September 2019.

The dean then "made several other discoveries," including that a student allegedly paid $14,000 to the former assistant dean for admission to the law school, and possible theft or misappropriation of law school funds.

"Particularly, application fees and seat deposits paid by students were being inappropriately deposited into a TSU Foundation fund in violation of the Texas General Appropriations Act," the document says. The dean "discovered $13,456.25 in cashier’s checks or money orders designated as deposits" to a law school program that were stashed under the former assistant dean's desk calendar. Nearly $32,000 in program deposits remains unaccounted for, the document says.

The dean requested an audit of several departments within the law school in October of 2019, the document says.

The internal investigation produced more details about the alleged improprieties.

Specifically, it said there was a scheme “where students not eligible for federal financial aid were granted scholarships large enough to receive substantial refunds.” There was no written policy for awarding scholarships at the law school, and one person, the fired former assistant dean, had sole discretion over it.

At least 17 students were found to have received over $430,000 in scholarships despite having “low entering credentials” or being ranked in the bottom 50% of their class. Six were also found to have been communicating with the assistant dean about “a financial impropriety scheme whereby these students were instructed to remit funds” — either cash payments or parts of their refunds — to the assistant dean in exchange for enrollment, financial aid, or both.

One student claimed he gave the former assistant dean “approximately $16,200 as well as concert and airline tickets in order to obtain admission” to the law school, and that the administrator instructed him to “remove character and fitness information from his application file in order to be admitted.”

It also suggests administrators tried to obstruct the internal investigation. The document says the former assistant dean’s archived emails could not be recovered “because the backup files were deleted and/or moved from their designated folder,” demonstrating “a deliberate attempt to hide and prevent access to these emails.” It also says the law school’s dean “provided updates to the senior executive administration during discovery” but was “not given a course of action by them as critical findings were uncovered.”

When regents met with Lane to inform him of some of the admissions allegations, he responded "'we knew about the pay-for-play, and we fired the guy'; however, he did not report the matter to the [board of regents] nor to law enforcement," the document says.

The chief audit executive briefed the board of regents chairman about the dean’s allegations last October.

Regents and the auditor then met with the Harris County District Attorney's office to disclose the information.

Later that month, a whistleblower letter was sent to the chair of the board of regents, confirming previously-disclosed "allegations of pay-for-play, acceptance of students who did not meet admissions standards, and misuse of the donor dollars gifted to the university." The letter alleged Lane had full knowledge of the allegations. (He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.)

The regents then hired third-party investigators to review the university’s admissions and financial aid processes, and asked a specialized employment law firm to help with the internal review.

A separate complaint was submitted to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in November 2018 from an employee who claimed to be in university enrollment services and said they were "concerned with the admissions practices utilized within the unit."

Disclosure: Texas Southern University 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.