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Controversy, sanctions and confidentiality: What happened this time in the student body election?

and | Friday, February 28, 2020

On Feb. 4, an election marked by controversy, sanctions and confidentiality officially began.

On that day, six tickets were announced as the contenders for Notre Dame student body president and vice president: juniors Michael Dugan and Ricardo Pozas Garza; juniors Rachel Ingal and Sarah Galbenski; junior Zachary Mercugliano and freshman Aviva Lund; junior Noble Patidar and freshman Connor Patrick; junior Connor Whittle and sophomore Jack Rotolo; and freshmen Henry Bates and Thomas Henry.

Diane Park and Nola Wallace

Over the course of the following week, the Judicial Council — which oversees the student body election — issued four sanctions to three tickets, one of which was appealed but ultimately not overturned.

For the most part, Judicial Council keeps a tight lid on internal affairs. When a ticket is sanctioned, the council only discloses which parts of the Student Body Constitution were violated and the resulting penalty. It does not reveal what the specific offense was, how the ticket violated the constitution or how the punishment is determined.

The council promises consequences for anyone who chooses to disclose this information. Vice president of elections Matthew Bisner said this could mean banishment from the Student Union or, in extreme cases, disciplinary action from the Office of Community Standards.

The Observer has pieced together the story behind each sanction from text messages, emails and internal documents, as well as conversations with the tickets themselves and others with firsthand knowledge of what happened.

The Observer reached out to all six tickets for comment. Four campaigns offered comments, exempting Dugan-Pozas Garza and Bates-Henry. Both tickets did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


Sanction one: The Ingal-Galbenski ticket

On the day campaigning season kicked off, Galbenski attended hall council at O’Neill Family Hall to speak on behalf of her ticket. 

While there, she was featured in O’Neill’s Pizza Review, a hall council tradition in which guests are invited to sample pizza from a local restaurant. The review was filmed and posted on O’Neill’s Instagram account the next day, which Ingal shared on her personal account’s story.

Early Feb. 7, Judicial Council announced the Ingal-Galbenski ticket had been sanctioned.

The council determined the ticket violated Section 17.1(g)(6) of the Student Body Constitution, which bars candidates from “[communicating] an endorsement such that it can be construed to represent that of a Residence Hall, Student Union Organization, University department, office or official.” As penalty, the ticket was directed to “cease all electronic activity” for 24 hours.

The Ingal-Galbenski ticket would not confirm nor deny whether the sanction was related to the Pizza Review, citing Judicial Council’s confidentiality rules.

Even so, Galbenski said the violation was “completely unintentional.”

“In our interpretation, it was not a violation,” Galbenski said. “… When we received notification that there was an allegation filed against us, we literally sat down for two hours trying to rack our brains for what we possibly could have done wrong.”

While he did not comment on the situation directly, Patidar said that dorms — and their social media accounts — should be completely left out of the campaign.

“No one should be able to post content on a dorm Instagram even remotely related to the election if the goal is to keep dorms and student union organizations out of this,” Patidar said in an email.


Sanctions two and three: the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket

The story of the Dugan-Pozas Garza sanctions begins with The Observer’s Editorial Board and its annual ticket endorsement.

During campaigning season, the Board meets with each ticket to interview them about their platforms and visions for the Notre Dame community. After all tickets are interviewed, the Editorial Board votes on which ticket to endorse.

Four days before the Board interviewed the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket, campaign manager Julie McKeon sent The Observer a Letter to the Editor she hoped to publish before the election vote officially took place. In the letter — which is now public — McKeon details her experiences with an “abusive relationship,” alleging Notre Dame’s Title IX office repeatedly mishandled her case and concluding with six paragraphs explaining the motivation behind her involvement with the Dugan-Pozas Garza campaign.

After asking for proof of a Title IX report quoted in the letter, The Observer told McKeon it had received her submission and an editor would reach out to her about it soon.

After The Observer interviewed Dugan, Pozas Garza and McKeon on Feb. 9, McKeon asked Editor-in-Chief Kelli Smith to step aside to discuss her letter in further detail.

Smith decided the allegations made in the letter warranted a full investigation into the University’s Title IX office, and told McKeon that The Observer planned to hold her letter until a full news report verifying the information could be completed.

McKeon agreed to the investigation, but asked if her letter could be reconsidered for publication as soon as possible after making certain modifications. Smith told her she would discuss McKeon’s proposal with other Observer editors and would let McKeon know.

McKeon followed up her meeting with Smith in an email sent less than two hours later. In it, McKeon tells Smith she is open and willing to cooperate with the investigation but is “really struggling with the idea of fully delaying telling” her story and “the opportunity cost of delaying publication of the letter is very high.” She concluded the email by reiterating the importance of publishing the letter the next day, Feb. 10.

Smith responded that evening, informing McKeon she and other editors decided not to publish the letter, even with modifications, to refrain from compromising the investigation.

“I know you’re hoping to bring this story to light as soon as possible, which is why we’re hoping to begin the reporting process as soon as you’re available,” Smith wrote in the email, which was sent at 8:29 p.m.

Earlier that afternoon, after completing interviews with all six tickets, the Editorial Board voted unanimously to endorse the Ingal-Galbenski ticket. The endorsement was scheduled to be published midnight the morning of Feb. 10.

At approximately 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 9, Observer Assistant Managing Editor Maria Leontaras received a text message from Dugan. 

[Editor’s note: Dugan is a former systems administrator and news writer for The Observer.]

Dugan asked Leontaras if she knew whether McKeon’s letter would be published in The Observer the following day. Leontaras told him she was not aware of the letter.

“Following our interview with Mike on Sunday, he sent me a text to see if something his campaign manager wrote was going to be running in the paper for the following day,” she said. “And I told him that I didn’t know what was running in the paper, because I didn’t.”

An hour and a half later, Dugan replied. Per his messages, Dugan indicated he was aware The Observer was endorsing the Ingal-Galbenski ticket, though the decision was not yet public knowledge. 

“Wait no; you know that there’s an endorsement coming for Rachel and that it’s running in tomorrow’s paper because you were in the ed board [sic] meeting,” he said in the text.

“It’s ok if you say you can’t say but you know some things,” he added in a follow-up text.

Leontaras did not respond.

Observer staff had noted suspicious activity on The Observer’s website earlier that evening. The Observer’s WordPress site showed the Viewpoint department’s editor account was viewing the editorial, though neither the Viewpoint Editor nor any of the other nightly editors were logged in at the time.

Smith said she checked the login activity on the website and noticed that Dugan’s old account had last been accessed at 10:07 p.m. that night.

“He’s completely unaffiliated with The Observer now, so I knew that was wrong,” Smith said.

As The Observer’s former systems administrator, Dugan had intimate knowledge of the website’s internal operations. He resigned as systems administrator in the fall and should not have had site access given restrictions made to his account.

Five minutes after texting Leontaras the second time, Dugan and McKeon both called Smith. McKeon also emailed Smith not long after.

At 10:20 p.m., McKeon texted Smith.

“I have some more info and you’re going to want to call me ASAP tonight,” McKeon said in the text.

After failing to reach Smith over phone and email, McKeon attempted to contact her through the direct messaging app GroupMe.

“Call me ASAP,” the message read. “I’m the [number withheld] missed call you just received.”

At 10:53 p.m., Smith responded to McKeon’s text.

“I’m on deadline and can’t talk on the phone right now, what is it?” Smith replied.

“Just giving you a heads up, we intend to publish on our own and we will have to include that the Observer [sic] didn’t print it in order to explain why we’re sending it that way rather than as a link to a Viewpoint,” McKeon replied.

“To clarify, to 8,000 students via email,” McKeon added in follow-up texts. “Thought you’d want to know, as either way everyone will know, if that makes a difference in your decision making process.

“Please confirm that you have read these,” McKeon sent about 15 minutes later.

Smith took the messages as blackmail.

“It was a subtle way of saying, ‘If you don’t publish this, we’re going to have to include The Observer didn’t publish it,’ and she ended up doing that the next day — you know, trying to make us look like the bad guys who didn’t want to publish her story when in reality we wanted to launch an entire investigation about it,” Smith said.

The next morning, McKeon sent an email to a number of students entitled “My Story.” 

“I’ve attempted to publish my story in the Observer [sic], but they respectfully declined to do so,” McKeon wrote in the email. “I hope that reading my story will inspire others to understand the urgency of this issue at Notre Dame.” 

Smith said she did not mean to “discredit” McKeon’s story in any way and that the paper was committed to investigating the situation. The problem, she said, was that McKeon tried to coerce The Observer into publishing the letter, which ended with multiple paragraphs endorsing a campaign of which McKeon was part.

“It’s unfortunate that the campaign tried to politicize this issue, which is what I believe happened. That isn’t discrediting Julie’s story at all,” Smith said. “But the fact of the matter is that it is very clear that it became political after they were very insistent that we needed to publish it that Monday, the day before the election.”

Dugan, McKeon and Pozas Garza did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The night of McKeon’s texts, Smith reported the events to Judicial Council, claiming the ticket engaged in unethical behavior by attempting to blackmail The Observer. Judicial Council said the allegations had merit.

In an email early Monday morning, vice president of elections sophomore Matthew Bisner told Smith she and the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket would testify in front of the Election Committee that evening at 11 p.m.

“All aspects of this hearing, including its very existence, are STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL,” Bisner wrote in the email.

Bisner also said the conduct described in Smith’s complaint “violates DuLac’s prohibition on harassing behavior.”

“All candidates are strictly held to DuLac,” Bisner said in the email. “I have included it as part of the allegation brief unless you have considerable objections thereto.”

Smith responded by saying she had no objections to adding an allegation of harassment to the complaint. 

The next afternoon, Bisner sent Smith a follow-up email about the hearing. Bisner said after meeting with Judicial Council’s Student Activity Office advisor Devon Sanchez-Ossorio, the council decided to reduce the number of allegations leveled against the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket.

“Due to Judicial Council policy, my advising you to add the violation of Article 17.1(c) and DuLac to your allegation means they cannot be added to our official brief of the allegation,” Bisner said in the email. “The hearing will be to address the Campaign Manager’s apparent coercion of Observer Staff to publish campaign materials under Articles 17.1(h) and (i)’s prohibition on unethical behavior.”

In a later email, Bisner said the Article 17.1(c) and DuLac violations would not be considered at the hearing because they were not included in Smith’s official statement to Judicial Council, and because the council did not believe it had enough evidence to show a “substantial link” to Article 17.1(c) and DuLac violations.

“If you would like to include violations of 17.1(c) and DuLac in tonight’s hearing, it’s imperative that you provide substantive reasoning as to why the actions of the alleged party constitute harassment and ‘unwelcome communication’ and how your evidence shows the same,” Bisner said in the email.

Per Judicial Council regulations, Smith and the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket testified in front of the Election Committee at separate times.

Early Feb. 11, after the hearing ended, Judicial Council announced its decision to sanction the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket for violation of Section 17.1(h) and Section 17.1(i) of the Student Body Constitution, which forbid candidates from engaging in “unethical behavior.” 

The sanction called for the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket to “cease all campaigning activity indefinitely” for the remainder of the election cycle.

Sanctions may be appealed to the student senate if candidates can point to a “procedural defect” in the hearing or have new evidence to offer, pursuant to Section 13.4(i) of the Student Body Constitution. Candidates have 12 hours after the sanction is given to file the appeal.

The Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket submitted an appeal the afternoon of Feb. 11, which the Judicial Council and student senate announced later that day had merit.

The primary election, the results of which were scheduled to be announced at midnight the morning of Feb. 12, was delayed — the Student Body Constitution stipulates Judicial Council cannot release election results while there are unresolved allegations or appeals.

In an email to campus media, student body vice president junior Patrick McGuire announced the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket’s appeal would be confidential and “closed to the public and media,” as mandated by Section 13.4(e) of the Student Body Constitution. Senate would hear the appeal the evening of Feb. 12, he said.

The hearing hoped to settle any remaining questions about the events of Feb. 9 and 10 so the student body election could continue.

But just before midnight, the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket was sanctioned again — this time, for violating the provisions of their first sanction, which barred them from campaigning for the rest of the election. The ticket was forced to forfeit 26 votes as a penalty.

The senate appeal hearing lasted approximately three-and-a-half hours. Just as before, the parties testified separately. Speaking on The Observer’s behalf were Smith, Leontaras, Managing Editor Natalie Weber, Assistant Managing Editor Mary Bernard, Viewpoint Editor Evy Stein and Systems Administrator Stephen Hannon.

That evening, McGuire informed campus media the student senate had voted not to overrule the sanction, meaning the group did not meet the three-fourths majority required to recommend the Election Committee uphold an appeal. Judicial Council declined to disclose the exact vote totals.


Sanction Four: The Mercugliano-Lund ticket

Notre Dame’s chapter of Knights of Columbus, Council No. 1477, was another focal point of the election.

Though the Knights of Columbus do not offer endorsements as a group, at least two candidates who ran in the elections are members: Dugan and Mercugliano. According to the council’s website, Dugan is also an officer. The Knights of Columbus hosted a debate Feb. 10.

Confusion stirred in the council’s GroupMe chat when news of the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket’s first sanction stipulating the candidates must cease all campaigning broke early Feb. 11. 

Some misinterpreted the sanction, thinking Dugan-Pozas Garza were forced to forfeit their candidacy. Seeing an opportunity, Mercugliano made his pitch to the chat.

“Many of you don’t know me well, but I may now be your only choice for the Catholic identity of Notre Dame,” he said in a message to the group that morning. “I like and respect @Mike Dugan quite a bit, he has far and away the most through [sic] and researched platform. In light of today’s situation, we promise to put him on our team if elected.”

Others were quick to correct the misconception.

“I will note that nothing in the press release from Judicial Council implies that Dugan is no longer eligible to receive votes, but simply that he and Ricardo cannot campaign,” junior Zach Pearson, a member of the Dugan-Pozas Garza campaign, wrote.

Looking to clear things up with the Dugan-Pozas Garza ticket, Mercugliano called Dugan about an hour later. Mercugliano said his call awoke Dugan. 

In an interview with The Observer, Mercugliano said he may have been the first to tell Dugan about the sanction since it was announced early that morning.

“I don’t think he would have known about the results, because he made it pretty clear he didn’t know what I was talking about,” Mercugliano said.

Mercugliano told Dugan about his message to the Knights of Columbus group chat.

“I said, ‘We’re really sorry this happened, but we’d love to have you on our team, we’d love to work something out in the case of being elected, because we do like and respect what you stand for,’” Mercugliano said.

Mercugliano asked about the sanction, but Dugan said he wasn’t allowed to talk about it and suggested reaching out to McKeon.

Mercugliano got McKeon’s number from a friend. He asked her what the ticket did to get sanctioned.

“I did say to her, ‘Look, we’re kind of serious here,’” Mercugliano said. “‘We really want to know because if you guys did do something wrong, I mean, we’d like your guys’ platform.’” 

Mercugliano said he also told Dugan and McKeon if the ticket didn’t do anything wrong he would help “set the record straight.”

McKeon then hung up on him, Mercugliano said.

The Mercugliano-Lund ticket was notified an allegation had been made against them at 12:20 a.m. on Feb. 12. The ticket would not go on record about their allegation hearing for fear of retribution. 

In a press release Thursday morning, Judicial Council announced Mercugliano and Lund had engaged in “highly unethical behavior” and would be forced to drop their candidacy.

The council determined the ticket violated Section 17.1(i)(1) of the Student Body Constitution, which reads: “The promise of any office or position in the Student Union by any ticket or candidate shall be considered highly unethical behavior, the penalty for which may include a maximum penalty of forfeiture of candidacy.”

Regarding his message to the Knights of Columbus group chat and his conversations with Dugan and McKeon, Mercugliano said he was cautious.

“The word ‘team’ was a strategically chosen word, because, as we know, we cannot promise the student government position to anyone,” Mercugliano said.

Whether it was Mercugliano’s text, the phone calls with Dugan and McKeon or unrelated events that resulted in the sanctions is unknown.

Mercugliano believes the ticket did not violate the constitution, and objects to the council labeling the alleged violation as “highly unethical behavior.”

“The accusation, in general, is one of compliance and not ethics,” he said.


Other unusual activity: Instagram spam and poster destruction

In addition to the four sanctions, several campaigns reported different types of abnormal activity — particularly with respect to their social media pages and posters.

Several tickets reported their Instagram pages being repeatedly reported as spam. At least one campaign complained that their posters were defaced. Whether or not either was the result of organized foul play is unknown.

The Ingal-Galbenski ticket said the activity of their account was restricted several times.

“It was our own experience during the primary election cycle that our campaign Instagram account was being flagged for spam and was often prohibited from liking, commenting, following people, or posting,” the ticket said in a statement over an email. “In discussions with other candidates, at least two other campaigns expressed they were experiencing similar issues.”

Junior Connor Whittle, another former presidential candidate, said his campaign had the same problem. The Mercugliano-Lund ticket also noted their posts were frequently flagged as spam when they posted.

Whittle explained that he thought the problems were consistent with Instagram’s anti-bot initiatives.

We did experience a few difficulties with our social media page, but we simply figured it was Instagram taking necessary precautions to stop fraudulent accounts since we honestly did exhibit typical ‘bot’ behavior with following mass amounts of people,” Whittle said in an email.

Patidar agreed with this analysis.

“Instagram thought we were a spam account since we were following so many people in such a short period of time so we did experience problems,” Patidar said in an email.

While the Ingal-Galbenski ticket acknowledged that Instagram sometimes limits the activities of certain accounts, the frequency with which problems arose struck the campaign team as unusual.

“While we are aware that Instagram does limit the activity of new accounts (such as our own), we felt it was particularly odd how often we were being flagged and how long our account was banned from online activity,” the ticket said in the email. “During the runoff campaign frame there were no issues with our account.”

Whittle said he and his running mate, sophomore Jack Rotolo, made it abundantly clear to their campaign staff that any sort of shenanigans were unacceptable.

“We did not use posters as part of our campaign. However, when we ultimately did hear about the difficulties others were having with their materials, we made sure to emphasize to members of our team that this kind of behavior was unacceptable and to be on the lookout for any other incidents,” Whittle said. 

Patidar also said his supporters did not tamper with other campaigns’ posters. He did, however, confirm that his ticket had some issues with their own posters being vandalized.

“People were tacking our posters and others were defaming us and even slandering us, but we chose to take the high road and persist through it,” he said.


The atmosphere among candidates

Despite the drama that followed this election cycle, the candidates themselves described inter-ticket interactions as generally polite and cordial.

The Ingal-Galbenski ticket said they appreciated the passion each group of candidates exhibited for the job at hand.

“At our first candidates’ meeting, we were heartened to see that our fellow candidates displayed both evident passion for our University and a desire to make it a better place,” they said over email. “At each debate, the other tickets always greeted us cordially, and the discourse that followed was collegial.”

Whittle thought all of the candidates were motivated by a genuine desire to improve the school.

“I hold an immense respect for each of the tickets that decided to run,” he said in an email. “Of course, each ticket held differing views on how to best impact the University, but at the heart of each ticket was an overall passion to make Notre Dame better.”

Patidar saw a general sense of respect between the competing tickets.

“I can’t speak for others, but we had a deep respect for the other tickets running and many of the other tickets shared that mindset,” he said.

Whittle thought all of the tickets understood the stakes were not monumental.

“At the back of our minds, I think there was an understanding that we were of course competing against one another, but we also acknowledged we were running for student body president and vice president of Notre Dame, not the United States,” he said. 

Rotolo, Whittle’s running mate, echoed those thoughts.

“I found the atmosphere amongst the tickets to be great,” Rotolo said in an email. “I really enjoyed the conversations I had with the other tickets in the race, and although we may have been running against each other, I felt no animosity.”

In Whittle’s analysis, the candidates conducted themselves according to that understanding.

“There’s a balance between taking the potential role and its responsibilities seriously but also understanding that there’s much more to life than serving student government for one year, and I think each ticket did a great job of finding that balance,” he said.

Patidar expressed some level of disagreement with that analysis, saying the race became intense at times.

“It was competitive for sure,” he said. “There is no doubt that the general atmosphere was that the tickets in the race cared a lot about doing a good job for a greater Notre Dame.”

Nevertheless, while things started out cordial, Patidar said inter-campaign relations deteriorated somewhat once the sanctions were issued.

“From the outset, there was a general spirit of friendliness,” Patidar said. “… [The] atmosphere turned pretty sour when allegations started coming in, even though we weren’t involved.”

At the same time, he said in general there was not a lot of communication between tickets.

“There was a general lack of communication between the tickets, though we were a ticket that was very transparent and communicated well with the other tickets,” he said.


The past, present and future of election transparency

Rachel Ingal and Sarah Galbenski were elected Feb. 20, concluding the two-week, four-sanction campaign season.

The rocky election was reminiscent of the 2018 cycle, which was host to five sanctions and four appeals. 

Former student body vice president Corey Gayheart (‘19), who campaigned in the 2018 elections, said the competition may be bound to grow unfriendly because the office is so coveted — and for some students, a position they’ve been dreaming of for years.

“I don’t think any candidate wants their elections process to be problematic,” Gayheart said. “… I think candidates speak to wanting it to be a clean process, but at the same time, in practice, I think there’s some things that get left at the door.”

It’s easy for candidates to — unintentionally or otherwise — take things too far, Gayheart said.

“I think there’s just some vagueness [in the Student Body Constitution] that when it’s left up to people’s discretion, there’s different viewpoints on how it should be interpreted,” he said. “And I think that when that happens, people tend to try to push the limits a little bit.”

There’s also the dilemma of transparency. While Judicial Council’s rules were created to help the elections run smoothly and with candidates’ well-being in mind, the student body has a lot to gain from loosening its confidentiality rules, vice president of elections sophomore Matthew Bisner said.

“I think a more open relationship with the student body is how we sort of make sure that we’re giving the voters as much as they need to be informed voters, while also guarding the confidentiality of all those involved,” Bisner said.

Transparency done right means striking a difficult balance, Judicial Council president junior Halena Hadi said. When it comes to allegation hearings, too much could mean swaying the course of the election.

“Our sanction is the punishment,” Hadi said. “We’re not trying to deter voters, as well.”

Moreover, any move toward transparency must be weighed against the risk of doing long-term damage to candidates’ reputations — what the council refers to as “character assassination” — which the Judicial Council considers a real risk, especially with more serious allegations.

But even so, the council made clear relaxing its ultimatum on confidentiality is not off the table. Judicial Council keeps ample records of each part of the sanctioning process — from allegations, to hearings and appeals — some of which could be released to the public.

For example, Bisner writes briefs for each of the Election Committee members and for testifying parties before allegation hearings. And when the committee votes whether or not to sanction a ticket, he writes decision letters for alleging and alleged parties.

Before they are released, however, the documents would need to be redacted enough to maintain a certain standard of confidentiality, but also be clear enough so an average student could read and understand them — another of the council’s concerns.

“I don’t know how much clarity [the documents] would bring necessarily to a student that wasn’t privy to the conversation,” Hadi said.

Deliberating over which documents to publish and what to redact from them would be time consuming — and Hadi said time is a resource Judicial Council is already short on.

“We do want to have a better rapport with the student body, we do want to have that transparency,” Hadi said. “But it does obviously come at a cost, and that cost is time.”

Given the events of the campaign, a move towards greater transparency is unlikely, Bisner said.

“Prior to this election cycle, I was pushing for greater declassification of our opinions to show the student body our reasoning,” Bisner said. “Now after this election cycle, especially with the material involved, I’m not sure if there’s the political will for that.”


About Mary Steurer

Mary is a senior sociology major and journalism minor from St. Louis. An aspiring religion reporter, Mary has spent the last year covering conversations about the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis at Notre Dame.

Contact Mary

About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. Formerly The Observer's Notre Dame News Editor, he's now a proud columnist for the paper.

Contact Tom