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Leaked emails reveal hidden sources of Bruins United campaign funds

Several leaked emails to the Daily Bruin showed Bruins United candidates, including current USAC President Avinoam Baral, soliciting donations from pro-Israel donors. (Joseph Chan/Daily Bruin)

By amanda schallert

Dec. 11, 2014 1:11 a.m.

Dozens of emails show that several members of the Bruins United slate have quietly solicited money from pro-Israel donors for at least the past two undergraduate student government elections, despite concerns about external influences having an unacknowledged voice in council decisions.

The Undergraduate Students Association Council election code does not require candidates to report the sources of campaign donations. Though no disclosure rules were broken, some student representatives and others have questioned where candidates obtained the thousands of dollars necessary to mount effective campaigns.

The leaked emails offer a look into student government not usually open to examination. Indeed, most USAC candidates and campaign leaders said they did not know where the entirety of their slates’ money came from or did not disclose all donor names.

Because of email leaks over the summer, however, much of the scrutiny has fallen on Bruins United.

A source who was granted anonymity for fear of reprisal gave The Bruin dozens of emails in which Bruins United candidates solicited campaign donations from off-campus Israel supporters. Some of these emails were leaked to the Daily Californian over the summer.

In the weeks before the last two spring USAC elections, Bruins United candidates emailed Adam Milstein, a pro-Israel donor, asking for financial help to get elected and vote down a forthcoming divestment resolution.

USAC voted on resolutions in each of those following academic years calling for the University of California to divest from American companies that some say profit from human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza.

The emails given to The Bruin indicate that Milstein then forwarded the candidates’ funding requests to other pro-Israel donors. In an email, Milstein asked his contacts to donate to the Bruins United candidates’ campaign fund and make checks payable to Hillel at UCLA. The leadership fund that received the donations in Hillel is not meant to solely support Jewish student leadership in USAC, but the emails indicate and the source said that Hillel channeled some of the money to Bruins United.

(Click to enlarge.)

 

Four of the five current councilmembers who ran with Bruins United and were elected in spring said they did not know that Milstein and other outside pro-Israel groups had donated to their campaign. The four added that they did not ask campaign managers and candidates about the sources of all funds.

(Read responses from other Bruins United candidates.)

 

Tensions rooted in divestment

Milstein, who is a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee National Council and the Israeli-American Council, is a donor to many pro-Israel organizations and to the UCLA Foundation. He is also the source of numerous social media posts that some say are Islamophobic.

Leading up to the 2013 USAC election, Milstein gave at least $500 to the fund in Hillel at UCLA earmarked for “UCLA student government leaders.” In the 2014 election, he gave at least $1,000 to be directed to the slate, according to emails and attached documents obtained by The Bruin.

Several members of Bruins United, UCLA Hillel and the Jewish community also attended a fundraiser at Milstein’s home in late April this year , where pro-Israel donors and Jewish community leaders donated to the Hillel leadership fund, and in turn to Bruins United, the source told The Bruin.

In an email to an Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation employee in March this year, Bruins United candidate and now-USAC President Avinoam Baral wrote:

“I can not stress enough how discrete (sic) this initiative must be. If this letter or any evidence of outside organizations involvement in these student government elections were to be found by our opponents it would compromise our campaign, Bruins United and all student government pro-Israel activism across America.”

“I can not stress enough how discrete (sic) this initiative must be. If this letter or any evidence of outside organizations involvement in these student government elections were to be found by our opponents it would compromise our campaign, Bruins United and all student government pro-Israel activism across America.”

Baral is currently the only Israeli councilmember on USAC and has been consistently open about his pro-Israel beliefs. He said he did not want to talk about campaign funding, Hillel or Milstein when asked for comment for this article, and added that he thinks he and University of California Student Regent-Designate Avi Oved, a former USAC councilmember, have been unfairly held to a higher level of scrutiny than other USAC members.

“I’m not going to let myself be held to a standard that no one else is held to,” he said.

He added that he thinks it could be beneficial for future candidates to disclose where their money comes from, but he does not want to do it retroactively.

For the past two years, Bruins United campaign managers said donations came from corporate sponsorships and candidates themselves, but never mentioned money from Hillel or pro-Israel donors when The Bruin asked them to report campaign funding sources.

It is unclear how much of the money from Hillel’s fund Bruins United spent in the election, if any at all. Last school year’s Hillel president Tammy Rubin, a fourth-year human biology and society student, declined to comment for this article.

Over the summer, at least 100 individuals participated in a conference call to voice their concerns about Oved’s appointment to the UC student regent-designate position. Just before his appointment, emails were leaked to the Daily Cal showing that Oved asked Milstein for funding help in 2013 when he ran for USAC internal vice president. Some students said on the conference call that they thought Oved’s actions constituted a conflict of interest and lacked transparency.

Oved said in an interview Monday that he did not disclose the donation through Hillel because he was not required to. He added that he does not know how much money was spent on his campaign.

“I didn’t comb through any of the donors that donated to me,” he said. “I knew I was getting support for my position and I didn’t take these other things into consideration because it wasn’t something that was raised before… The concern I had at the time was, can I make money to run a viable campaign.”

“I didn’t comb through any of the donors that donated to me,” he said. “I knew I was getting support for my position and I didn’t take these other things into consideration because it wasn’t something that was raised before. … The concern I had at the time was, ‘Can I make money to run a viable campaign?’”

Oved added that he has been unequivocal about his stance against divestment.

“I’ve never appeased anyone to contradict my beliefs, and people knew that,” he said. “I grew up having this belief and being pro-Israel and being Jewish, and that’s what makes me who I am. To get support because I have those values is not a conflict of interest.”

When asked for comment on this article, Milstein referred to a statement he released over the summer saying he did not donate to the Bruins United slate or to Oved, but did donate to Hillel. He added in an email that he thinks he did not leave any instructions with his donations to direct the money to Bruins United.

“These allegations against Adam Milstein and the Milstein Foundation represent yet another step in an anti-Semitic smear campaign that seeks to marginalize Jewish and Pro-Israel students,” the statement from the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation said.

Milstein added that he thinks The Bruin’s recent questions represent another step in the “smear campaign.”

Current Hillel leadership declined to interview on the record for this article because some students have said they think the issue should be resolved within USAC, said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, a member of UCLA Hillel’s student life team, in an email statement.

“Divestment is an internationally coordinated effort to delegitimize one particular nation state. It seeks to affect government policy. It also attacks Jewish identity and peoplehood in the process,” he said in an email statement. “So it should come as no surprise that ‘outsiders’ get involved. The idea that this is a ‘student’ issue is merely a tactic designed to eliminate the voices which protest the specious attacks BDS proponents cast at Israel.”

 

Questions throughout USAC

In all slates, specific funding information – including donor names and a breakdown of all contributions – is not readily available.

Some students, including members of the LET’S ACT! coalition, have alleged that the FIRED UP! slate received money from members of the Central Programming Office for their campaigns this past spring, though Tony Sandoval, the director of CPO, denied the allegations in an interview with The Bruin in June.

Rohit Maharaj, a UCLA alumnus and former FIRED UP! campaign manager, said the slate fundraised by reaching out to individual students in groups affiliated with the slate. Maharaj said students, family members and friends gave about $20 to $100 each, and slate members kept track of the funding on paper. He added that slate members did not always list the sources of the donations, and that the slate never received money from the Central Programming Office.

Most candidates from all slates reported getting their money from their parents, close relatives or family friends. LET’S ACT! members said they also received funding from alumni donors in the spring and used a PayPal account to allow donors to send the money.

The Bruin asked multiple LET’S ACT! members, including current councilmembers, to see the slate PayPal account and the names of the alumni donors, but they either did not respond or said they did not know all funding sources.

Irmary Garcia, current Cultural Affairs commissioner and a member of LET’S ACT!, said she contributed money to the campaign from her personal savings and received donations from her friends, but she declined to talk for this article.

“I cannot remember how much (my campaign cost) to be completely honest because, as I am sure you know, election season was and always is chaotic,” she said in an email. “I provided what I needed to and had full trust in those in charge of the campaign finances. I know that may seem irresponsible of me to not remember my donation amount, but I am being entirely honest.”

General Representative Manjot Singh said he did not know who the alumni donors to the LET’S ACT! campaign were when he ran last year, but he was told by LET’S ACT! members to “trust the process,” so he did.

He said he thinks LET’S ACT! is a progressive coalition and that its donors probably upheld the same values of the slate members, so he does not see them as potentially controversial figures.

One problem in politics is “selective outrage,” meaning that people focus their anger on what they want to, and don’t always apply the same standards across the board, said Dan Schnur, who served as chairman of California’s Fair Political Practice Commission.

Schnur said that this may apply to the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement, in which both sides may have a political interest when criticizing their opponents.

To truly fix a problem, Schnur said students must be willing to impose the same standards on the people they agree with.

 

Limited oversight

Campaign finance disclosure rules across the UC are often relaxed for student governments.

A few campuses have mandatory spending limits, unlike UCLA, so the amount of money poured into elections on other campuses is often less than USAC elections’ average $5,000-$10,000 per slate.

Some election board members at other UC campuses collect mandated information about campaign funding sources, but the majority do not require it, or only require disclosure in the event of an official audit. Several UC student government leaders said there weren’t any controversies that would prompt further scrutiny and they don’t see a need for more transparency. Others said they do not know why their rules are this way.

While USAC candidates may be following the election code rules in keeping campaign funding sources hidden, the situation may not be that simple, said Sarah Swanbeck, California Common Cause’s policy and legislative affairs advocate.

“By the letter of the law at UCLA, sure they’re complying,” Swanbeck said. “Sometimes technically (individuals) might have followed the letter of the law, but if you actually retrace their steps there is kind of an ethical gray area.”

“By the letter of the law at UCLA, sure they’re complying,” Swanbeck said. “Sometimes technically (individuals) might have followed the letter of the law, but if you actually retrace their steps there is kind of an ethical gray area.”

Jeffrey Seglin, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said he thinks it would be legitimate for students to question why some candidates in all slates are hesitant to disclose campaign funding sources.

“If someone is reluctant to tell you where their money comes from I would think … ‘why are they reluctant?’” he said. “And if someone is caught in a lie I think that’s grounds for impeachment. If they lie about where their money came from, it’s not a disclosure problem, it’s a lying problem.”

Others said they do not think the same rules that larger governments follow should apply to USAC, however, since many councilmembers do not run for office more than once.

David Bocarsly, USAC president in the 2012-2013 school year and general representative the previous year, said he thinks student government officers don’t feel the same political obligations to donors as national politicians because many do not run for reelection. He added that he does not think money affects policy decisions in USAC.

“If you find $20 on the floor are you obligated not to spend it because it’s from someone you didn’t like?” he said.

“If you find $20 on the floor are you obligated not to spend it because it’s from someone you didn’t like?” he said.

Some experts said they think more disclosure of campaign contributions is always a good thing, whether it’s in a campus election or for a local, state or federal campaign.

“Voters should have a right to know who’s funding a particular candidate or campaign so they can draw their own conclusions about whether those contributions have affected a candidate’s stand on relevant issues,” said Schnur, who is also the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

He added that he thinks it is unfair to fault candidates for failing to disclose information they did not have to.

“The off-campus funders in this campaign, they didn’t do anything wrong at all,” he said. “But this is a good opportunity to take a step back and see whether student governments would benefit from greater disclosure.”

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