Former UT System regent pleads guilty to violating federal election law

Lauren Girgis

An engineering company led by a former Univeristy of Texas System regent was charged last month with evading federal election laws by making donations in the company’s employees’ names to election campaigns. 

According to the Houston Chronicle, James Dannenbaum pleaded guilty Friday to circumventing federal election laws while he was the CEO of Dannenbaum Engineering. Dannenbaum was appointed to a six-year term on the Board of Regents by former Governor Rick Perry in 2007 and was elected vice chairman of the board in 2011, according to the UT System website. Dannenbaum received his bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from UT-Austin, according to the website. 

Dannenbaum is accused of working with a former company executive to recruit 31 people to contribute more than $323,300 to two dozen federal political campaigns between 2015 and 2017 with the promise that the employees would be reimbursed with company funds, according to the Chronicle. Prosecutors said this meant the company illegally exceeded its allotted donation amount, according to the Chronicle. 

“We’ve served the state of Texas for almost 75 years,” newly appointed CEO Michel Maksoud told the Chronicle. “It’s unfortunate for such a cloud to be cast on us that has nothing to do with what we do best, which is engineering.”

Dannenbaum stepped down from his position as CEO last month, according to the Chronicle. The company will pay a fine of $1.6 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement.

According to the Chronicle, Dannenbaum has previously been a major donor to Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Cornyn campaign spokesperson John Jackson told the Chronicle the $30,000 Dannenbaum and his wife gave to his campaign in 2017 will be returned to the United States Treasury.

Dannenbaum appeared in court Friday and told a federal judge that he helped employees make illegal donations. According to the Chronicle, he pleaded guilty to a single count of making contributions in the names of other people by giving $10,000 to $25,000 in a single year. According to court documents acquired by the Chronicle, there is no indication candidates knew the company was the source of the contributions. 

“At this stage of life — and I mean precisely this moment — I am prepared to make amends for mistakes that are my sole responsibility,” Dannenbaum said in a written statement to the court.