Student Senate debates conflict of interest issue
In its weekly meeting Wednesday night, the Student Senate voted to open the previously secret minutes from last week’s closed Senate meeting regarding allegations of misconduct against student body president Bryan Ricketts, a junior, which the Student Union Ethics Commission investigated.
Junior Zach Waterson, president of Judicial Council and chair of the Ethics Commission, said the committee investigated Ricketts on two allegations of misconduct: infringement upon the rights and dignity of the allegation initiator — specifically, a lack of transparency with regard to appointments to the student government executive cabinet — and untimely presentation of a monetary gift to one who assisted in the campaign for student body president.
In a statement after the Senate meeting, chief of staff Dan Sehlhorst, a junior, spoke to clarify the actions that led to allegations of misconduct. (Editor’s Note: Selhorst is a Viewpoint columnist for The Observer).
“During the initial consideration of running for student body president, Bryan consulted with the initiator and indicated his interest that individual serve as chief of staff were he to win the election,” Sehlhorst said. “In the midst of the campaign, Bryan had concerns about the potential for the individual to lead a large staff and serve as a core member of the team.
“He realized that he needed to reconsider automatically offering the position to the individual. After the election, Bryan and Nidia conducted a search process based on recommendations from current and former members of the Student Union and individual applications. They concluded this process by offering me the position.”
Sehlhorst said the initiator received a $20 gift card from Ricketts after the election for his or her help with the campaign; other members of the Ricketts-Ruelas campaign staff received the same gift for their work, he said. The Ethics Commission did not find that this action was a violation, Selhorst said.
At the closed meeting last week, the Ethics Commission, which can only advise Senate on how to respond to allegations of misconduct, presented four recommendations on how to proceed, Waterson said. The first two of these recommendations dealt specifically with the misconduct:
“The Student Senate shall refer the Student Body President to the Student Government Advisor or an appropriate mediating administrator to hold discussion with the allegation initiator in order to improve his ability to balance personal relationships with Student Union duties and thus better serve as Student Body President.
“The Student Senate shall draft a resolution to prohibit the practice of presenting gifts to individuals to reward assistance rendered during a campaign, appointment or selection which could present an ethical dilemma.”
The remaining recommendations dealt with another issue that arose during the investigation: sophomore Danny Funaro is the gender issues department director as well as the historian of PrismND. According to Sehlhorst, the initiator of the complaint claimed Ricketts had known there was concern over a potential conflict of interest arising from the fact that Funaro currently holds both positions but failed to mention it to the Senate when Funaro was confirmed by the group.
According to Waterson, the Ethics Committee recommended the following on this topic:
“The Student Senate shall examine Section 1.3 (c) of the Constitution of the Undergraduate Student Body and the way it encompasses the offices within the Student Union special interest organizations. This clause should be adjusted to mandate the examination of potential conflicts of interest that may arise when an individual holds both an office within the Student Union and an office within a Student Union special interest group, such as between the Department of Gender Issues and PrismND.
“The Student Senate shall hold discussion with PrismND on the topic of Danny Funaro simultaneously holding the positions of Department of Gender Issues director and PrismND historian.”
Due to the latter recommendation, Senate opened discussion during this week’s meeting on whether Funaro would be allowed to keep his student government position.
President of PrismND Lily Crawford, a junior, said this is a conflict of interest because the two organizations Funaro represents have specific initiatives that do not coincide.
“The conflict of interest lies in the fact that PrismND’s mission and the mission of student government are different and the fact that in having both positions you cannot inherently untie yourself from one when you’re acting in another,” she said.
Funaro said Crawford had previously asked him to choose one position because of this perceived conflict of interests, but he did not.
“I came to the conclusion that there was not a conflict of interests, due to the duties of each position not conflicting with one another, and therefore I chose not to choose between the two,” Funaro said.
Selhorst said there wasn’t a conflict of interest due to the differences in the structures of PrismND and student government.
“Right now, we’re talking about a pastoral mission — PrismND — and a policy mission — student government, and typically conflict of interest is considered when they’re the same and when you could be giving that benefit to another group that you’re in that you wouldn’t be giving to another group. In choosing our staff, we saw that any potential to give that benefit to PrismND was far outweighed by the prospective it provided. Danny wouldn’t be the final decision maker on items, so there wouldn’t necessarily be that risk.”
Discussion specific to Funaro’s potential conflict of interest was tabled for next week.
Waterson presented a resolution to avoid future concerns for conflict of interest, which the Senate passed. Resolution SS1516-07 will require nominators to make any proposed conflict of interests known to the Senate during the approval process and clarifies the purpose of the Student Union Ethics Commission.
“The subcommittee feels these are both steps in the right direction toward a stronger Student Union,” Waterson said.