AFFILIATIONS OF USAC OFFICIALS CALLED INTO QUESTION

Daily Bruin: University of California - Los Angeles
April 1, 2014 Tuesday

by amanda Schaller, Bruin senior staff

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 pro-Israel and pro-Jewish 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.