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The allegiances of multiple undergraduate student government officials have come into question several times this school year, prompting some students to consider proposing a bylaw amendment to clarify what constitutes a conflict of interest for councilmembers.
Some students have accused certain councilmembers of engaging in conflicts of interest by having too close of ties to external lobbying groups. This year, council has seen almost 10 resolutions where voting required them to take ideological stances.
According to the USAC bylaws, a conflict of interest occurs when a USAC member receives “improper benefits,” such as money or other gifts and advantages, because of their elected position. Councilmembers are not allowed to have an “unauthorized financial interest or obligation which might cause divided loyalty,” and the bylaws advise that USAC members avoid even the perception of conflicts of interest.
At a USAC meeting March 11, several members of the Armenian Students’ Association criticized Internal Vice President Avi Oved for going to a conference last month hosted by one of the most influential pro-Israel lobbying groups in the United States – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The students read a letter saying they felt betrayed and offended by Oved’s actions because they think the committee has a history of marginalizing the Armenian-American community. They namely criticized the presence of the Azerbaijan ambassador to the United States, Elin Suleymanov, at the conference, and said he represents a government that has caused human rights violations, including hate speech against Armenians.
“Everyone can have their own political opinions, but when you join council, the sacrifice that you make is that you have to let go of organized bias,” said Natalie Kalbakian, vice president of the Armenian Students’ Association and a second-year political science student.
Oved, a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee since high school, said he did not know the ambassador was present at the conference and that he attended the event as a learning and networking opportunity. He added that he attended the conference during his personal time, without using student fees or any of his office’s resources and was not acting as a councilmember during the event.
Councilmembers’ involvement in lobbying groups was brought to the forefront after some of USAC’s decisions caused controversy in the campus community. Namely, councilmembers voted down two resolutions that related to divestment and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Oved is openly pro-Israel and was a strong opponent of a controversial divestment resolution that some members of the Armenian Students’ Association supported last quarter.
The distinction between councilmembers’ personal and public lives is a gray area, and differences in opinion have caused at least one other controversy in USAC this year, along with other arguments and repercussions in the past.
In 2011, a councilmember resigned for conflict of interest reasons after he signed a contract with Jobbook.com, which promised him shares in exchange for promoting the site.
One major point of contention is the gap between the personal and the political – especially when councilmembers take ideological stances at the table. Unlike ties between councilmember actions and monetary benefits, the links between potentially educational conferences or trips councilmembers attend and their ideological decisions at the table are not as clear.
Roy Champawat, director of the UCLA Student Union, said councilmembers may have conflicts of interest on ideological issues, but that does not mean that they have necessarily taken an improper action. As long as councilmembers are transparent about their affiliations, disclose their actions and try to avoid conflicts of interest from dictating their votes, they have not engaged in improper action, Champawat said. Champawat added that it can be important for councilmembers to take stances on issues even when they have affiliations with outside organizations.
In Oved’s case, Kalbakian said aligning with an ethnic lobbying group is morally wrong when serving as a student body representative, and that all councilmembers should be uniformly barred from such actions.
Concerns about councilmembers’ ties to external organizations involving Israel also came up during fall quarter and in late winter quarter following USAC meetings where councilmembers voted on controversial resolutions related to divestment and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One resolution opposed divestment, and the other called for it.
During a meeting in October, multiple councilmembers said they thought General Representative Sunny Singh should abstain from voting on one of the controversial resolutions because he had gone on a free trip to Israel over the summer covered by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish pro-Israel lobbying group that aims to stop anti-Semitism.
After a different divestment resolution failed to pass on Feb. 26, criticisms of Singh, who voted to not divest from companies that profit from occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, surfaced again on multiple social media sites.
Singh said his actions did not constitute a conflict of interest because he did not receive any financial or monetary benefits for his vote and he was not obligated to act in any specific way at the council table. Singh also disclosed that he went on the trip before the meeting and said he viewed it as an opportunity to learn about one perspective on Israel. He added that most conflict-of-interest issues boil down to financial benefits, and that councilmembers should be allowed to pursue knowledge through conferences and other avenues.
Darren Ramalho, USAC academic affairs commissioner, also went on a trip with the Anti-Defamation League in the summer of 2012. At the time, he said he went as a representative from Bruin Republicans and was not thinking about running for USAC. He said that the trip didn’t leave him with a clear stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he has no obligations or financial ties to the group. He added that his political affiliations and those of some other councilmembers are already clear, since he was active in Bruin Republicans in his previous years at UCLA.
Lauren Rogers, USAC financial support commissioner, said she went on a free trip to Israel during winter break with Project Interchange, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to increase individuals’ understanding of Israel and is part of the American Jewish Committee. Rogers said she went on the trip solely as an educational opportunity, has no tied interests with the group and does not owe the organization anything. She added that she used none of her office resources for the trip, which she says is a clear indication that she was not acting as a councilmember.
After presenting at the USAC meeting last quarter, some members of the Armenian Students’ Association think their next step may be proposing a bylaw amendment to bar councilmembers from aligning with external lobbying organizations that do not focus primarily on student advocacy.
Kalbakian said associating with external lobbying organizations – especially ethnic lobbying organizations – gets too “messy” for councilmembers, since those organizations can have ties to numerous controversial causes.
But Champawat said a bylaw that is too restrictive could be harmful to councilmembers and the student body. “To preclude viewpoints and organizations that have viewpoints doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of institutions of higher education like this,” Champawat said. He said full disclosure may be the most effective remedy to conflicts of interest, and that students should not be limited in their alliances.
Under the possible bylaw amendment proposed by the Armenian Students’ Association, councilmembers would still be allowed to associate with organizations such as the University of California Student Association and the United States Student Association.
USAC is currently a member of the two student advocacy organizations, and External Vice President Maryssa Hall acts as a student body representative at their meetings and conferences. She said a bylaw amendment that is too strict in limiting councilmember affiliations could inhibit them from serving students and doing their jobs. She added that there should be an investigation into accusations students have raised so far this year because USAC needs to address student concerns.
Many councilmembers said they often defer to administrative representatives to tell them what to do regarding potential conflicts of interest, but the majority of councilmembers said the USAC bylaws should be more straightforward.
“If the students are gonna hold us up to a standard, then those standards need to be explicitly stated,” said Savannah Badalich, USAC student wellness commissioner.
Clarification: The Anti-Defamation League identifies itself as a Jewish organization.