UB Student Association senator alleges election violations against e-board

SA engulfed in controversy over senate chair election

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A Student Association senator has accused SA executive board members of illegally manipulating last week’s election in an attempt to put their candidate into office.

Yaser Soliman, who says he was cheated out of a win in Wednesday’s senate chair election, has retained an attorney and submitted a five-page letter to SA officials Thursday night outlining his complaints. In the letter, he accuses SA President Minahil Khan of violating the SA’s constitution and bylaws in order to prevent him from winning the election for senate chair, which is a paid position.

The accusations have mired the entire SA in controversy and have pushed Dillon Smith, the candidate elected senate chair under murky circumstances, to announce that he will resign the position at the next senate meeting to allow for a new election.

Soliman insists that’s not enough.

He says SA is so flawed and so devoid of integrity that it would be impossible for it to hold a fair election. He announced his resignation from the senate in a letter to The Spectrum.

“The level of violations and unethical conduct in this matter is truly perplexing,” Soliman, who served as senate chair in a temporary role during the summer, said in his statement. “Due to the continued violations and steps taken to keep me from being re-elected Chairman, I have no choice but to resign.”

Soliman declined a formal interview with The Spectrum. He said that decision was on the advice of his attorney.

Khan’s actions, some of which go against the SA constitution and bylaws, during Wednesday night’s senate meeting include: not allowing a tardy senator to vote, making a tie-breaking vote herself, holding the election without the elections and credentials (E&C) chairperson, using Vice President Sean Kaczmarek as a witness to count ballots and offering the candidates to conceal how she decided the election from the senate.

SA elections are intended to comply with federal, state and local laws as well as SUNY and SA rules. SA controls a budget of around $4 million through a mandatory student activity fee.

The controversy began when Khan told Senator Joe Jessee that he could not vote in the election because he had missed the first few minutes of Smith’s campaign speech.

Neither the SA constitution nor the bylaws state that a senator cannot vote if he or she is late.

Jessee told The Spectrum an hour after the election that he had planned to vote for Soliman, which would have given Soliman eight votes and Smith seven votes. Instead, the vote came out a 7-7 tie and Khan – after consulting with SA professional staff – casted a vote for Smith and declared him the winner.

Khan denies any malicious intention or that she rigged the election. She said she followed past precedent and that any procedural errors were honest mistakes.

“I would never want that to be mixed up with any sort of malice or intentions,” Khan told The Spectrum. “I don’t want to start off the senate membership of the year with anybody having any kind of questions or lack of trust in me … I can genuinely 100 percent tell you there was no vindictive action on my part.”

The Spectrum spoke with more than half of the 12 newly-elected senators, some who allowed their names to be printed and others who would not. They described this year’s senate as a place of division, conflict, unrest and confusion and where students are unsure of their roles or of protocol.

Some said they don’t trust the e-board.

“The school’s had issues with SA in the past with corruption and we may have another corrupted e-board with them fixing the vote, if they did,” a senator said.

Others reiterated their faith in Khan.

“I believe she did everything in her power to follow the constitution,” said Carl Ross, a senator who also ran for chair and received one vote, in a written statement to The Spectrum.

Other senators simply want to move past the matter and attend to clubs’ needs.

SA Admin Director Mark RP Sorel, who has worked in SA for more than 30 years, said student complaints about election irregularities are nothing new. When asked if he’s seen anything similar to this new controversy, he replied, “constantly.”

“People interpret things for their own way after they happen and scrutinize inconsistencies so they can benefit from them,” Sorel said speaking generally of complaints. “I see it all the time after somebody loses an election, people jump right in and say this is wrong because this, this, this and this.”

SA members both past and present have varying opinions on what this latest controversy and a potential lawsuit could mean for the organization.

One senator said she doesn’t think the controversy needs to “tear down the Student Association” but that it would be fair to follow the rules. Another senator said it would be good to “humble” the e-board and remind them they can’t “sweep things under the rug.”

Travis Nemmer, the 2012-13 SA president who The Spectrum reached out to for historical context, said it’s unlikely Soliman will actually sue SA.

“No one follows through [with lawsuits for SA matters] because … it’s alienating, and lawyers are expensive,” he said.

The Spectrum attended Wednesday’s chair election and watched the events unfold.

As candidates began to cast ballots, Khan approached Jessee and told him he count not vote because he had missed part of Smith’s speech.

“You can’t take away a person’s vote just because they didn’t listen to both sides,” said Senator Suzan Akpinar.

SA officials admit nothing about this appears in writing, but Khan said it’s standard practice in SA not to allow people who come in late and miss speeches to vote. It’s not fair to the candidates, she said. Experienced SA members both past and present confirmed to The Spectrum that this is common SA practice.

“[Jessee] didn’t have all of the facts,” said Alexis Ogra, a senator who supports Khan’s decision.

Many other senators insist hearing Smith’s speech wouldn’t have changed Jessee’s vote as students know before the speeches what each candidate stands for. Jessee and Soliman are friends and both members of the Organization of Arab Students.

Akpinar said, especially considering almost all of the senators ran on the same party, “we definitely knew what [the other senators] stood for before coming into that meeting. We were not blind to people’s objectives.” One senator said, “It’s not like Joe missed much of Dillon’s speech, he missed, ‘Hi my name is Dillon, here’s my résumé.’”

Although Jessee arrived just several minutes into the senate meeting, he was showing up roughly 40 minutes later than he was supposed to be, according to emails obtained by The Spectrum. Khan asked senators to arrive to the SA Assembly meeting at 5:30 p.m. and started candidate speeches in the senate meeting at about 6:10 p.m.

Once Soliman pointed out the problem, he and several other senators suggested SA discount Khan’s vote and let Jessee vote. But Khan said one of the reasons that can’t happen is Jessee never casted a ballot.

“It’d be a different story if there was a ballot casted and it wasn’t counted,” Khan said. “But since the ballot wasn’t casted, you can’t allege, ‘Let’s just let this person vote.’”

The Spectrum witnessed Khan tell Jessee he couldn’t vote before he had the chance to fill out his ballot.

She did this publicly in front of all the senators. Khan explained later, “It wasn’t a decision I wanted to make in confidence to Joe or anything like that, so I made it in front of everyone. He didn’t object; no one else did at that point in time.”

Another issue is whether it was constitutional for Khan to break the tie between Soliman and Smith.

As president, Khan had a right to be acting senate chair Wednesday, per the SA constitution. She said it was precedent that the senate chair breaks all ties, so when the election was a 7-7 tie, she voted for Smith.

But the SA bylaws state that in the event of a senate chair election tie there should be a revote until there is a winner. Khan said SA’s attorney, Josh Korman, told her she shouldn’t have broken the tie. Neither the SA constitution nor the bylaws state that the senate chair can break ties with a single vote. They do state, however, that Robert’s Rules of Order, which is widely used for parliamentary authority, applies on issues the constitution and bylaws are silent.

Former SA members confirmed that it’s normal for the chair to break ties.

When Khan and Kaczmarek realized there was a 7-7 tie, Khan said she went into her office to triple-check her constitution and call SA pro staff members for advice.

Khan supplied The Spectrum with her cell phone call logs of that night, which show she called both Sorel and Associate Admin Director Amanda Johnson twice. Johnson told Khan on the second call that she could vote to break the tie.

Sorel said he missed both calls because he was away from his phone.

“Obviously, there was no external rushes, but because of the fact everyone was waiting and I knew it was a busy night, I was trying to go quickly. And at the same time, I was confident in what I was doing so I made the call because I know the senate chair always makes or breaks the ties,” Khan said.

One senator expressed concern Khan rushed her decision because she had to attend Liz Murray’s Distinguished Speaker Series event, which is sponsored by SA, in Alumni Arena at 8 p.m. A Spectrum reporter saw Khan at the event.

“Why are we now convening … on a night she had something else to do?” a senator said to The Spectrum.

After speaking with the pro staff, Khan ushered the three candidates – Soliman, Smith and Ross – into a hallway outside the senate meeting to explain how she had broken the tie. She then asked the candidates if they’d like to tell the senate Smith won outright and not disclose Khan made the deciding vote. All parties involved confirmed this story – including Khan, who admitted it to The Spectrum before being confronted about it.

The candidates insisted the senate needed to know the truth and Khan obliged.

Khan said this wasn’t to lie to the senate, but to avoid confusion among senators.

“I was hoping they would say to explain everything because … I didn’t want people to think it was something sketchy or something,” Khan said. “They all agreed we should tell the senators what happened.”

As for accusations she rigged the election against Soliman and to get Smith in office, Khan said she’s had limited interactions with all three candidates.

She said she proxied senate meetings with Smith and Soliman last year and had seen Ross around the SA office. She said she made her decision based on the candidates’ speeches and question and answer sessions and voted for Smith because he seemed to be the most prepared.

“When people questioned him on his ideas he was able to do it eloquently and immediately you could tell he had given it thought,” Khan said.

Tensions rose between Soliman and the e-board members after Wednesday’s election as the senate discussed when to have its next meeting. Akpinar said “there was a lot of hostility in the room against Yaser.”

Former SA Senator Daniel Giles said Soliman and Kaczmarek, who was Special Interest, Services and Hobbies (SISH) council coordinator, disagreed on many senate issues last year and occasionally things got “heated.” He said both are passionate.

Kaczmarek admits he and Soliman have disagreed, but said the two were on friendly terms and that Soliman had even come to him for advice once and the two had lunch together.

He said he’s been in several classes with Smith and that Smith was involved in several of his clubs when Kaczmarek was SISH coordinator, but he also disagreed with Smith, who proxied last year in the senate. Kaczmarek said one time Soliman and Smith were both against him on whether or not to give a club $1,000.

Some senators are also concerned that E&C Chair Anthony Field did not attend the election, although the SA constitution states his position “shall govern all Student Association elections proceedings and processes.”

Field was not immediately available to speak this weekend. Khan told The Spectrum Field had a class the night of the election.

By Friday evening, it does not appear SA officials had told Field about Soliman’s complaints. Soliman showed The Spectrum screenshots of Facebook messages he and Field exchanged Friday evening in which Field asks, “what happened Wednesday?” and “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Because Field was not there, that left counting the ballots to Khan and Kazcmarek in the hallway outside the meeting. Treasurer Joe Pace, the third member of the e-board, left the meeting after briefly addressing the senate before candidate speeches.

Nemmer said an E&C chair “should absolutely be the person counting these votes.”

Ross doesn’t believe Khan intentionally kept Field out of the meeting. He said he thinks Khan made an effort, but said things could have been handled differently.

“With the time constraints that was placed upon our President, I feel that Ms. Minahil Khan made every effort to get in touch with Mr. Anthony Field, and possibly, he was not able to come,” Ross said in his statement. “What would have been best is that Ms. Khan should have made a statement or at least had paperwork showing that [Field] was unable to come and could have sent someone in his place or placed the responsibility in Ms. Khan’s hands.”

Eleven of the 12 newly elected senators are new to the senate – the only veteran was Soliman. Several senators told The Spectrum they felt underprepared for both Wednesday’s election and their roles as senators, which are to oversee and make decisions on SA’s roughly $4 million budget of student funds. Senators are unpaid.

They said there was no official senate orientation, just a 20-30 minute meeting with Field in which senators read over the constitution and bylaws by themselves. When asked about making complaints known to the SA pro staff, a senator remarked, “We don’t even know who these people are.”

That senator said the e-board’s actions in the election were “almost exploitation of our innocence as first-time senators.”

Senators actually knowing the ins and outs of the SA rules may be uncommon. Nemmer said throughout his time in SA, “most of the senators couldn’t even tell you any of the bylaws.” Senate sometimes has a designated parliamentarian to keep up with the rules –which Smith campaigned for in his platform.

Drama had surfaced between the senators even before Wednesday’s meeting.

Eleven senators ran in the same party, Students for Progress. Nemmer said it’s common for a party to decide on one person to run for chair but according to the party members, there was never such a discussion – although Akpinar assumed Soliman would run because he organized and picked the ticket members. It was after they were elected, senators said, that chair candidates emerged.

Some senators said all three candidates tried to guarantee votes before the election. There was so much tension among senators that Khan had to address it before beginning the election, reminding senators they were there to serve the students. She also dispelled rumors the e-board had endorsed a candidate.

Nemmer doesn’t think Khan did anything maliciously or that Soliman will go through with a lawsuit.

He said “every person who’s threatened to get litigious with the SA has lost and been almost universally viewed as the biggest … crybaby in the school.”

Nemmer recalled one year a student threatened to sue over an SA election and had a man going around the Student Union glaring at SA members.

“People said, ‘That’s the other party’s lawyer,” Nemmer said. “Turned out it was just her dad who was an insurance agent.”

Nemmer, who is about to graduate law school, doesn’t expect anything to change with Soliman.

“Unless this guy is independently wealthy, mommy and daddy aren’t going to pay some lawyer $250 an hour to get you a senate seat,” he said.

Smith has scheduled the next senate meeting for this Wednesday. At the meeting, he plans to resign and then run for reelection.

Soliman said he cannot attend Wednesday’s meeting and expressed concern a new election is happening despite the fact he can’t go. Soliman submitted screenshots of the senate Facebook group chat that shows several other senators can’t attend either. Some members are making a commitment to go, however.

“Wednesday is my birthday and I’m gonna be there,” Ogra said. “It’s an important meeting.”

Smith said he picked Wednesday after consulting with the pro staff and finding out when Korman, the SA attorney, would be available. He said senators who can’t attend can proxy their vote.

He also said he was “deeply hurt” his election was contested and decided it was the best interest of SA and UB to resign so there could be another election. He called the past few days “stressful” and that he has had to cut class to handle the drama, but he’s hopeful he’ll be elected chair again.

Khan said Korman will explain last week’s election to the senators and review past student government election cases that reached the Supreme Court. He will also watch over any new election that occurs.

Some senators worry that all this turmoil will taint the year and put students off.

“We need to put our problems aside and move on with the rest of the year. It looks bad for senate itself and the Student Association,” Ogra said. “I know clubs are very anxious.”

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki.