The president's end?

Student Association leaders unite in opposition of President Nick Johns

By SAM FERNANDO and AARON MANSFIELD
On September 8, 2013

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.

SA reviewed the gift acceptance policy - which Senior Office Manager Sam McMahon said Johns personally approved - at its fall staff orientation in Niagara Falls, Canada, but Johns was not in attendance. He said he could not cross the border because his parents misplaced his naturalization paperwork and he could not get his passport in time. Ingram said Johns was the first to know of the trip and had ample time to get his passport.

Johns said he received legal counsel advisement that it was OK to accept the Ohio State gift because it was from the university. Asked if the legal counsel was aware of SA's contract with athletics, Johns declined comment.

Johns missed SA's club orientation to attend the football game. Club Services Director Judy Mai said Johns should have been there because the clubs are a vital part of SA and "a lot of the clubs don't know that he is president."

"Since my job entails larger-scale, inter-organizational meetings, I thought it was a more efficient use of my time," Johns said. "I thought that showing my support for Athletics, that we are trying to engender, is something that is more important."

Selsky and Chhabria, the other two executive board members, told The Spectrum they felt Johns should have attended the club orientation. Selsky said he and SA's pro staff told Johns he should not accept the gift; Chhabria was also offered the trip but declined it, citing his responsibilities to the clubs and the conflict of interest as his reasoning.

Selsky said that is not the only decision Johns has made that put his personal interest ahead of SA's.

"Nick more is, 'I'm the president. I'm going to do my own thing,'" Selsky said. "And that's a very selfish attitude."

On Aug. 22, Johns was interviewed by BuzzFeed and made a statement on President Barack Obama's visit to UB and the NSA surveillance controversy. SA wasn't aware of the interview, according to Lachaal.

The Spectrum asked Johns if he felt it was appropriate to make political statements on behalf of the student body. He responded, "yeah," and that "most of [his] friends" agreed with his political opinion. Asked if his friends' views represented the entire student population, he responded, "probably not."

Lachaal and Asst. SISH Coordinator Minahil Khan said Johns subsequently paid $50 to promote the article on SA's Facebook page without telling anyone. They said he filed paperwork to be reimbursed that falsified which post was promoted, claiming the money was spent on promoting SA's back-to-school barbecue.

Only two posts have been promoted from SA's page during his administration: one being the Reel Big Fish concert and the other being the BuzzFeed article. Selsky said Johns promoted the post and called it a misuse of SA funds, fraud and "more or less stealing from the Student Association."

Johns denies using SA funds to promote the post, saying he did it out of his own pocket and that a bookkeeper filed the reimbursement without him knowing. Chhabria said he has not approved the reimbursement.

Several of the SA members accused Johns of hiring his friends, and creating positions for them, instead of hiring more qualified candidates. Before The Spectrum addressed the accusation, Johns said he wanted to be more inclusive this year and not be "as sedentary as years past and just hiring all your friends."

When The Spectrum questioned Johns on some of his hiring decisions, particularly hiring three of his roommates and at least one personal friend, he claimed he had valid reason to do so.

Merckel said Johns also gave hiring preference to attractive females and, when she approached him on the issue, he claimed it was to make a "better face for the SA." Fields said Johns would interview attractive female applicants alone and she was once on a conference call with Johns when he asked how good-looking a female applicant was. Johns denies the claim.

Johns, who is 20 years old, has also been accused of discussing drinking alcohol in a speech at freshmen orientation. He sent a copy of the speech to Merckel in a text message before delivering it. Some points are: "My interests include partying, partying, SA stuff and long walks on the beach;" "I'm not one for bulls**t so I'll stick to the facts;" and "standing on my couch spraying champagne on 100 of my ticket's closest friends at our victory was one of the craziest moments of my life."

Johns claims he gave a paraphrased version of the speech. He said he was unaware Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Barb Ricotta was in attendance.

"Is that the message we want to send from our SA president?" Ingram said.

When asked if it was appropriate for an underage student body president to comment on alcohol consumption to incoming freshmen, Johns said, "I am legal to drink in Canada."

Johns later said he has not been to Canada since middle school.

SA officials have also claimed Johns falsified his work time sheets during the summer. Selsky said he noticed some of the time sheets looked "fairly ridiculous." The Spectrum obtained copies of Johns' time sheets, which state he worked an average of 40.5 hours per week between May 1 and Aug. 11.

McMahon, the senior office manager, said the SA office was open 9-3:30 Monday-Thursday and by appointment Friday. He said Johns didn't normally come in until noon or 1 p.m.

"That was the usual time when he rolled up," McMahon said. "And there were plenty of days he would leave before we even left. He would go to a meeting or something and just never come back.

"During business hours, when there were actually people in the office, things to do, meetings to have, he was rarely around."

Selsky said Johns' $12,000 stipend for the year was unaffected by the hours listed on the time sheets.

Chhabria said Johns' power as president has gone to his head.

"I've seen a lot of complaints and I don't think he is carrying out his duties as president," Chhabria said. "I do feel that he is more self-concerned than he is with the organization."

Johns claims those in SA who are unhappy with him simply don't like his management style and that he has treated the organization more as a business than a club.

"People thought I would be basically a puppet for those who were in power before and those who are surrounding me and trying to influence me," Johns said. "But the fact that I try to do the right thing, I try and not break the law, I try and get things done on time ... that doesn't sit well with them and they would prefer to have a puppet president.

"But I am not a puppet."

He said those accusing him have their own agenda and "this seems to be a conspiracy." He said of the accusations, "I think that quite frankly a lot of these are immaterial and have nothing to back it up except he said/she said."

"People have lost sight of what is important - serving the students," Johns said. "It's not just serving ourselves as an organization."

Johns said the "power play" is "based around seven individuals in SA who believe I need to be taken out, so to speak." SISH Coordinator Michael Calliste said 50-60 percent of SA's staff is dissatisfied with Johns' leadership.

There will be a group going through the Student Union with a petition to impeach Johns all week, Lachaal said, and there is no deadline for the petition. Those seeking the president's removal said if they receive the necessary number of signatures, Student Life will verify person numbers. And if the petition makes it through that step, the Student-Wide Judiciary will review the claims against Johns before finalizing the decision.

 

Eric Cortellessa contributed reporting to this story.

 

Email: news@ubspectrum.com


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