For bored reporters and burnt-out students, a little bit of excitement and intrigue at one of the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s weekly meetings is like manna from heaven.
These dramatic scenes are not exactly indicators of good government, however.
Nearly a month ago, two students utilized the public comment period during a USAC meeting to read a letter detailing damning allegations against Election Board Chair Richard White. Javier Rodriguez, who identified himself as a former member of the Community Programs Office, alleged White had used his influence on the Student Fee Advisory Committee to direct thousands of dollars in student fees to fund a paid position in the former organization. SFAC is composed of student, faculty and staff representatives charged with making recommendations to the chancellor about the allocation of student fees.
Rodriguez also claimed White leveraged his influence in CPO and SFAC to weaken rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest.
Although these scandalous tidbits might be compelling to an audience tired of listening to council members explain the ins and outs of color codes, they also suggest that conflicts of interest and political factionalism continue to dominate campus politics. In fact, the letter may be evidence that White’s long-standing ties to SFAC and CPO have allowed him to pervert the student fee appropriations process to benefit his political cronies. It also suggests that similar transgressions might crop up in the future if conflict of interest rules are not strengthened.
USAC must move quickly to shore up conflict of interest rules in both organizations in order to ensure that the sort of self-serving, corrupt behavior attributed to White is subject to exacting scrutiny.
Rodriguez said in an email to the Daily Bruin he was concerned SFAC is becoming dominated by students determined to favor some organizations over others in the student fee allocation process.
Unfortunately, there is reason to believe Rodriguez’s allegations. During White’s confirmation hearing to be Election Board chair, a former colleague claimed he had failed to sever his ties to CPO during his tenure on SFAC. In that same hearing, White refused to acknowledge the Election Board chair’s obligation to avoid conflicts of interest through the process of recusal.
These new allegations make White’s efforts to weaken conflict of interest rules look less like isolated power grabs and more like attempts to systematically weaken ethical oversight of student leaders. These moves, in turn, can weaken student faith in the legitimacy of the democratic process and detract from well-intentioned efforts to effect political change.
Robert Watson, USAC internal vice president, declined to comment on Rodriguez’s letter and the allegations against White.
USAC must leverage its political clout and push student leaders to embrace robust conflict of interest rules rooted in truth and transparency. Regardless of the veracity of the allegations against White, the type of behavior described in Rodriguez’s letter has no place in university leadership. Imposing wide-ranging conflict of interest rules would go a long way toward rehabilitating our student government’s reputation among undergraduates.
USAC also has a responsibility to investigate Rodriguez’s allegations in light of White’s previous ethical lapses. An investigation could determine if White’s behavior as a member of CPO or SFAC violated the principles of ethical leadership he denigrated during his confirmation hearing.
Such an investigation would also help eliminate the appearance of corruption in student government. As long as USAC has a less than stellar reputation for fairness and equity, it will fail to reach out to politically disengaged students or motivate them to pursue change through the democratic process.
As it turns out, students would appreciate an investigation into White’s case. Alexis Flores, a second-year political science student, said he thinks White should be treated according to his guilt or innocence. Flores added the situation seemed serious enough to warrant an investigation.
White’s defenders may argue that extensive coordination between student organizations like SFAC and CPO is part and parcel of campus politics. However, this argument ignores the sensitive nature of SFAC’s mission. The committee is charged with the disbursement of student fees and has a special responsibility to act impartially on behalf of all students. If the allegations in Rodriguez’s letter are true, White abdicated this responsibility by allowing his political priorities to supersede SFAC’s ideal of impartiality. Coordination between SFAC and other student organizations isn’t harmless or commonplace – it amounts to corruption, plain and simple.
The fact that White now chairs the election board, another ostensibly impartial institution, provides even more cause for a response to Rodriguez’s serious allegations.
While council members may not want to inject any sort of excitement or surprise into their otherwise slow and uneventful weekly meetings, Rodriguez’s allegations demand a response.
It’s about time we got some answers – and got to enjoy the accompanying drama.