A free meal could signify a first date or a birthday celebration, but for student government members, it could easily represent a conflict of interest.
While members of the Undergraduate Students Association Council are not being treated to steak dinners, a few have accepted expenses-paid trips to the other side of the world.
Among these councilmembers are General Representative Sunny Singh and Financial Support Commissioner Lauren Rogers. Both took subsidized trips to Israel after winning their respective seats in the spring of 2013.
Students called these trips into question in the lead-up to and aftermath of the rejection of a controversial divestment resolution dealing with UC holdings last quarter.
USAC should restrict councilmembers from receiving paid trips and any other similar benefits after they have been elected to their positions. This would not only help them avoid allegations of conflict of interest, but would also keep them focused on the task at hand, and the reason they supposedly ran in the first place: representing and serving the UCLA undergraduate student body.
The fact of the matter is that when you are a government official, even at the student government level, your actions are put under a microscope.
Councilmembers shouldn’t align themselves with groups not directly linked to student advocacy during their USAC tenure, unless it’s on their own tab. Financial help from outside organizations should be out of the question.
The problems that arise when student officials take gifts from lobby organizations or donors became apparent at a government meeting last month.
At the USAC meeting on March 11, members of the Armenian Students’ Association pointedly criticized Internal Vice President Avi Oved for taking a free trip of his own. Oved recently attended a conference in Washington, D.C. hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most prominent pro-Israel lobbying groups in the United States.
Oved has had ties with AIPAC since high school and said that he has not shied away from making these connections public. All funding for his trip this year came from donors from Jewish and pro-Israel organizations unaffiliated with the UCLA campus, Oved said.
Because of his prior affiliation with AIPAC, Oved’s case is not as problematic as councilmembers accepting free trips to Israel after being elected. But when coupled with the politically charged nature of the lobby group, the fact that Oved’s trip was paid for lends more credence to the student outcry.
Like most lobbying organizations, AIPAC has its fair share of controversy; this is where the Armenian Students’ Association’s criticism comes in. The conference was attended by Elin Suleymanov, the ambassador of Azerbaijan to the United States, who spoke at the event.
Aside from carrying out massacres against Armenians at Maragha, Sumgait, Kirovabadand Baku during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government of Azerbaijan recently pardoned and promoted Ramil Safarov, who murdered an Armenian lieutenant in his sleep during a training seminar and was then extradited to Azerbaijan in 2012, and elevated him to the status of national hero.
A single attendee of this conference carries all this baggage. Even though Oved said he did not know Suleymanov carried this baggage with him (which is reasonable given the lack of international attention paid to the Caucasus), students are justified in being indignant that their internal vice president attended the same conference as this type of political figure.
New legislation restricting councilmembers from accepting gifts from groups that don’t explicitly advocate for the needs of the student body is necessary. These restrictions should be applied to all USAC officers equally.
Oved mentioned that the Office of the External Vice President has ties to the United States Student Association and the University of California Student Association, organizations that he said take stances that do not necessarily represent the student body as a whole.
While this may be true, one of the external vice president’s job is to align with off-campus student advocacy groups. The difference between an organization like AIPAC and the two aforementioned student organizations is that the latter specifically address issues faced by university students. If the EVP office is tied to organizations that don’t adhere to this standard, the same rule should apply.
The Armenian Students’ Association seem to have struck onto something larger than the affiliations of these councilmembers alone: a problem rooted in permissive USAC regulation. Lobbying groups and off-campus groups in general that have little or nothing to do with students deserve no place in student body government.
Since many of these groups tout agendas that do not have our best interests in mind, it is unfair to students for their representatives to affiliate with them. Councilmembers must take these facts into account and stop these issues from emerging in the future.
Distancing themselves from groups unrelated to students and their needs is a strong first step in building a student government that works for the entire campus.
Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet us @DBOpinion.