The president’s end?
Student Association leaders unite in opposition of President Nick Johns
Published: Sunday, September 8, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 19, 2013 19:09
Student Association higher-ups say Nick Johns is unfit to be president and SA members have begun to circulate a petition to have him impeached.
Last week, SA officials brought a list of allegations against Johns to The Spectrum, which include: inappropriately accepting gifts, mishandling SA funds, hiring personal friends over more qualified candidates, being absent from important events, falsifying documents, mistreating staff and harassing Chief of Staff Jennifer Merckel.
“We wouldn’t be here unless it was so serious that we felt something had to be done about it,” said Academic Coordinator James Ingram. “That’s how far we’ve been pushed right now. We feel the only way to keep credibility in the Student Association is to impeach Nick Johns.”
The petition began circulating last Wednesday. In order for Johns to be removed from office, SA officers need 2,541 signatures – one more than the amount of votes cast in the spring election.
Johns ran for student body president in March on the platform of transparency and had promised to rebuild trust in SA. Those who work closest to him say his tenure has focused more on his own needs than those of the organization.
“At heart, he is a good kid, but he is not the leader we should have,” said Vice President Lyle Selsky.
Selsky went on to say: “[The students] should know what is going on because these are their funds; this is their organization. They elected us to serve them, and when someone is not following that, they should know.”
Johns met with The Spectrum Saturday and claimed some allegations were false, while responding “no comment” to others.
“This is a power play from my staff and it sucks,” Johns said. “They are really unhappy with my management style … I have a lot of people wanting to see me fail. As you can see by all this power play, there are those who are jealous of what I’ve gotten, and I think that is the basis of this.”
He called The Spectrum 25 minutes after the interview and requested a follow-up meeting.
“I believe I should be given a reprieve,” he said. “I’ve never been in such a large leadership role; every little thing you do is analyzed.”
The Spectrum interviewed 10 SA staff members, all of whom said they had issues with Johns’ leadership.
“My mom used to say, ‘If a child doesn’t get a smack in the head, he’s not going to learn,’” said SA Treasurer Siddhant Chhabria.
Merckel, the chief of staff, said she verbally complained to SA’s professional staff that Johns had harassed her and inappropriately touched her back and leg during conversations. Selsky said he and one pro staff member sat down with Johns and talked to him about his behavior toward Merckel.
Johns denies ever having such a meeting.
“This is untrue,” Johns said of the allegations. “This is ridiculous. Unless people are committing perjury, this is completely untrue.”
Merckel submitted a written testimony to The Spectrum.
“I had told him on numerous occasions that [the touching] really bothered me,” Merckel wrote. “No matter how many times I told him this though, he would continue.”
She said she is in the process of filing a complaint with the university.
“I categorically deny the touching allegations,” Johns said.
Merckel also provided The Spectrum with the text message history between her and Johns dating back to May. She said it shows his unprofessional behavior.
In one May 5 message, Johns states, “I’m a dumbass, but luckily, I’m also president.”
Johns eliminated the definition of harassment from the SA handbook over the summer and changed the title of a section from “sexual and discriminatory harassment” to “harassment.” He said New York State’s definition of harassment is clear and he was aiming to make the handbook more concise. Merckel expressed opposition to the decision in multiple Aug. 18 text messages, but Johns – who had final printing authority – removed the definitions regardless.
The Spectrum asked Johns about his relationship with Merckel. He said he wasn’t sure if it was romantic, but the two went on “several lunch dates,” and “it occupied a grey area for [him].”
“It wasn’t a completely working relationship,” he said. “Maybe lines were blurred and feelings were hurt because of that … It was a really close friendship that I think has gone awry.”
Merckel said her boyfriend told Johns the situation made him uncomfortable. Johns said to the best of his knowledge, Merckel is dating 2012-13 SA President Travis Nemmer, and Nemmer confirmed.
Johns has also been accused of improperly accepting gifts. On Aug. 31, he received an expense-paid trip and sideline ticket to UB’s football season opener at Ohio State, a gift from the athletic department – with which SA signed a $30,000 advertising contract over the summer. The 2013-14 SA handbook states employees “cannot receive gifts of more than nominal value if it could reasonably be assumed that the gift was meant to influence you in performing your duties, for example, a gift of more than nominal value from someone whose business comes before you.”
“It was professionally wrong,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Loren Fields. “I have worked here four years and I’ve never seen one president go through with something like that … Our $30,000 for promo … was almost just to be able to go on the jet. Just to be able to say, ‘I’ve got these opportunities. Look at what I have.’”
Johns also made an error handling the contract, according to Selsky and Entertainment Director Erin Lachaal. They said, after signing the agreement, Johns filed the paperwork late, which caused SA to lose a 30-second video advertisement and a 15-second radio ad. Regardless of the loss, SA has to pay the full $30,000. Selsky said UB Athletics was angry because of the miscommunication and SA isn’t sure if it has lost anything else from the contract.