SGA Election Controversy Embroils Executive Board

Maggie Fried

At 11:59 p.m. on Sunday night, the Student Government Association (SGA) presidential elections concluded. A few hours after the end of the election, the student body received an e-mail announcing that the ticket of juniors Dave Kusnetz and Melissa Madaio had won, defeating juniors Chistopher Nulty and Ann Redpath by the largest margin in SGA history. Later that morning, current SGA president senior Rob Sobelman received an e-mail from vice-presidential candidate Redpath in response to a phone conversation between Nulty and Sobelman that took place at the end of the elections.

“The way that you [Sobelman] manipulated the system throughout the election personally offended me, and undermined the entire process,” Redpath said in the e-mail. “I have no doubt whatsoever that Dave and Melissa will be able to do a wonderful job and accomplish a great deal or that they deserved to win, but I do wish that you had accepted that your reign is coming to a close and that you were overstepping your boundaries.”

Although the election was finished, controversy surrounding the election process, as illustrated by Redpath’s e-mail, has continued throughout this week. Concerns were raised that Sobelman and, to a lesser extent, vice-president senior Jenny Dorland, abused their power by aiding the Kusnetz and Madaio campaign.

Nulty and Redpath were not the only ones distressed with the elections process. In addition to Nulty and Redpath, the three people in charge of running the election – election commissioners junior Lauren Abouof and junior Phil Salvatore and SGA parliamentarian senior Matt Wisnieff, expressed concern over this issue to the Maroon-News.

According to SGA bylaws, “Senators and elected and/or appointed officials may not advocate for a specific candidate in their official function. They may, however, participate in a campaign as long as they identify as being agents acting on behalf of a candidate.” However, according to both Abuouf and Redpath, who served as an elections commissioner last year with Nulty, it has been precedent for the leadership not to be involved in the campaigns. Additionally, Redpath and Nulty said that at a leadership meeting after spring break, Sobelman stated that he would not be endorsing a candidate. Although he could have changed his mind and endorsed a candidate, according to Wisnieff, Sobelman never identified as an agent of Kusnetz and Madaio’s campaign, even though doing so is mandated by the bylaws.

At the start of the election campaign, Wisnieff, Salvatore and Abuouf told Sobelman that he was allowed to join the Kusnetz and Madaio Facebook group as well as offer advice to Kusnetz, a close friend of his.

“Rob was definitely a supporter of the campaign, we were proud to have his support,” Kusnetz said, speaking on behalf of himself and Madaio. “He served as an advisor informally to Melissa and I. We made sure and he made sure personally that the support he gave us was in line with the bylaws and the rules, as well as precedent.”

As the campaign period progressed, Nulty and Redpath became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that most of SGA leadership clearly supported the Kusnetz and Madaio campaign.

“We [Abuouf, Wisnieff and Salvatore] spoke with Chris and Ann and it became more and more apparent that they were not comfortable with the leadership process because if any complaints went to leadership, they would be at a clear disadvantage.” Salvatore said. “In response, Lauren and I drafted Memorandum 1 that went out to the leadership. We still wanted to make it clear that we were not restricting officers’ rights to participate, but we narrowed the definition of participation so that active participation was not allowed, which included actively campaigning and inviting people to Facebook groups.”

After the elections commissioners drafted the memorandum, Wisnieff deemed its contents constitutional and the leadership was strongly urged to distance themselves from the campaigns. Rather than ending with the creation of Memorandum 1, the concern over Sobelman’s involvement and abuse of power increased when the Kusnetz and Madaio campaign was issued a violation of election rules by the elections commissioners on March 28. That evening, Abuouf and Salvatore were informed by Kusnetz and Madaio that they planned to appeal the violations, which is allowed under the official election process.

A few hours later, at around 2:00 a.m., Sobelman sent the following e-mail to Kusnetz and Madaio and signed it as SGA President, even though, according to Salvatore, the only responsibility of the president and vice-president in the elections process is to appoint the elections commissioners.

“I have been informed that your campaign is contemplating filing an appeal of a decision made by the SGA Elections Commissioners,” Sobelman said in the e-mail. “If this is the case, please submit it in writing to me as soon as possible. Once it is submitted, a special meeting of the SGA Leadership will be scheduled to hear the appeal.”

Twenty minutes later, a campaign manager for the Kusnetz and Madaio campaign responded, informing Sobelman of the campaign’s desire for the special SGA Leadership meeting. Ten minutes later, Sobelman sent out an e-mail to the SGA Leadership informing them that the meeting would take place. In it, he stated how the meeting would run in terms of speeches, discussion and voting.

“Tuesday morning we found a series of e-mails in our inboxes saying that a special meeting was called before [Lauren and I] had a chance to look over the appeal,” Salvatore said. “Rob’s e-mail directly contradicts Memorandum 1 by stating that members do not have to recuse themselves. Also, appeals must be filed with the parliamentarian [Wisnieff] before going to leadership, which had not happened.”

“I feel like the message sent in the email was fairly strong,” Abuouf said. “What were Phil and I supposed to think when we saw that? I thought that calling the meeting was a way to question our decision–I know I was worried when I saw that email. I felt that maybe Phil and I had to think twice about issuing [Kusnetz and Madaio] violations.”

Acknowledging that Sobelman’s e-mail could have resulted from a misunderstanding of the election rules, which previously included the president in more of the appeals process, Abuouf said, “People do make mistakes, but out of everyone in SGA [Sobelman] is the one who knows the process better than anyone else out of all of us.”

According to Salvatore, in a phone conversation with Sobelman that took place prior to the e-mail calling for the special meeting, Sobelman “suggested to Lauren and I that it was still possible for us to compromise with Dave and Melissa [on the violations] and that if we decided to do so, to let him know so he could cancel the meeting.” However, in a prior meeting with the Kusnetz and Madaio campaign in which the violations were discussed, the election commissioners indicated that there was no possibility of removing the violations.

In response to the allegations that he attempted to bypass the election commissioners in the appeals process in order to aid Kusnetz and Madaio, Sobelman said, “Like all other aspects of the election, I had no official role in how it was conducted. With permission of the parliamentarian, I did generally encourage both parties in the appeal to work toward a compromise. However, no compromise was ever reached and I was ineffective. I would have encouraged the same resolution no matter what the situation was or who was involved.”

After Sobelman’s e-mail was sent out calling a special SGA Leadership meeting, Wisnieff reviewed the constitutionality of the meeting. Following his review, “[Matt Wisnieff] said that appeals filed so far were invalid,” Salvatore said. “With that, Rob cancelled the leadership meeting and I think Matt informed Rob that there had been a formal complaint made against him. And I feel that after that, Rob significantly decreased his activity and we heard much less from him.”

The complaint against Sobelman referenced by Salvatore refers to a formal complaint filed by Nulty and Redpath last Wednesday in regard to an event that took place prior to the election. According to the document, the event in contention “is one single event that we believe, when viewed collectively, only adds to the continued illegitimate involvement Rob Sobelman has had in this presidential campaign.” According to Sobelman, the accusations in the complaint are unsubstantiated.

In response to allegations that Sobelman attempted to manipulate the appeals process in his favor, Kusnetz, again speaking for himself and Madaio, said, “[Sobelman] was an advisor to my campaign about how to conduct a campaign. We did not authorize him to do anything to help our campaign, any conversations he had with his staff are known by Rob and Rob’s staff alone and we would have had no knowledge of it. If [the alleged actions] were to occur then Rob would be violating the bylaws, because that would be him using his presidency to affect the campaign.”

Given that the special leadership meeting never took place and the elections are now over, each of the five people who voiced their concerns about Sobleman’s actions have a slightly different view on what should come from the recently concluded election process.

“A lot of people think that the [election] system needs to be replaced or repaired,” Salvatore said. “I think that any system is going to have an opportunity to dysfunction and break down and it all depends on the people who are placed on a position of power and whether they can be trusted with the power. I think if something like this were to go unaddressed, it would set an example for subsequent student government leaders that this sort of leader is acceptable … I think it still needs to be addressed, as unfortunate as it is. [Sobelman] stepped across the lines and whether that means that there is any formal action or not, I think it is something that should be known to the student body that happened.”

For Abuouf, the issues raised by the election should serve as a lesson for future SGA leaders.

“I hope that when looking back on this election, future members of Leadership will be more cognizant of how others perceive their involvement in the SGA elections process,” Abuouf said. “If a member of Leadership is questioned about his or her active involvement in a particular campaign, it ultimately undermines SGA as a transparent representative of the student body.”

Nulty and Redpath have expressed that they are not interested in contesting the election results, but instead, want to turn their energy to the future.

“I think in the end, there is no point in looking back or hypothesizing about the way the elections could have turned out,” Redpath said. “I just know that I want to spend the rest of my energy making sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Like Redpath, Wisnieff is more concerned with changing the SGA system for the future so that controversy over elections will not be an issue again.

“In the end, it isn’t about Dave and Melissa and it isn’t about Rob,” Wisnieff said. “It is about a system that is flawed and is all about yourself and getting ahead … This is what we have become and I hope there is a better way to do all of this. I hope there is a better way, because if there isn’t, I don’t want any part of it.”