The Fall of AUSG: Part I

Election decertification was just the beginning. The newest AUSG scandal touched off an entire year of controversy and exposed the student government to lasting repercussions. AUSG may never be the same.

 

Picture the scene: It’s the night of March 30th, and I’m sitting in my apartment. The AUSG presidential election is over, and I’m eagerly awaiting the results. Unexpectedly, the 9 pm deadline for results passes, but the Elections Commission does not publish the vote totals. Puzzling. I message the Elections Commission on Instagram to ask about the delay, and they reply that the Senate has not finished its certification hearing. As such, results would be delayed for a few hours. Disappointed, I resolved just to wait it out. Then, I got the big news: The AUSG Senate has decertified the presidential election. Thus began one of the biggest student government scandals in years—and potentially ended AUSG as we know it.


While the election decertification was the moment that got the most attention, it was just one link in a chain of malice, incompetence, and toxicity. This crisis had been building for months (if not years), and the outcome of this election will reverberate for years to come. This two-part series summarizes the findings of multiple interviews with members of AUSG, observations of live senate hearings, and HR and judicial documents obtained by the Agora. The first part will explain the election and decertification controversy and the toxic culture of AUSG that allowed these scandals to happen. The second will focus on the long-term effects and what can be done to save the student government.


The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Election


To understand how an AU student presidential election was almost overturned, it is important to review the events of the election. Incumbent Chyna Brodie was running for reelection—something rare for AUSG presidents. Kyra Thordsen, current SPA Undergraduate Council President, decided to challenge Brodie for the top spot. Both campaigns were marred by scandals of varying severity. The first controversy came from Brodie’s camp. AUSG has a standing policy that candidates cannot use official AUSG social media accounts to promote their personal campaign. One of Brodie’s campaign staffers, who also worked on the AUSG yearbook project, posted one of Brodie’s campaign ads to the official Instagram account, @auyearbook. The Elections Commission (the independent body that runs elections) filed suit against Brodie in the Judicial Board (the judicial branch of AUSG) for violating the regulations. In the end, the Judicial Board (J-Board) found Brodie guilty of violating AUSG policy and forced her to issue a public apology and cut her campaign budget by 25%.


Unfortunately for Brodie, the J-Board case spiraled further. In the course of the investigation, the J-Board found out that a sitting AUSG Senator was working for the Brodie campaign (another policy violation) and quickly ruled that he had to be fired. More importantly, Brodie testified to the J-Board that her campaign staffer who had posted the campaign video was a freshman. She argued that “the campaign team should be left off with a warning. And I say this because number one it was committed by someone who was a first year.” However, the staffer was a sophomore. The J-Board then held Brodie in contempt for, in their opinion, lying to the Board. For the lie, the J-Board suspended Brodie from the presidency for a week. They removed her from office. This means that at the time of the election, Brodie technically wasn’t the incumbent. According to Secretary Maanasi Natarajan, Brodie then instructed her to remove any Instagram story related to her J-Board case from all the AUSG accounts—essentially, a cover-up of her violations.


Soon after, the J-Board looked into Thordsen’s campaign. This controversy surrounded Thordsen’s campaign manager, Ethan Gaskill, who was also Thordsen’s boyfriend. Gaskill had emailed several fraternities with the subject line “Defeating Abolish Greek Life.” Specifically, he said that “terminally-progressive” students would vote against Greek Life in the ballot referendums, that fraternities and sororities should organize to vote in favor of Greek Life, and that Brodie would attack Greek Life as racist. It was a blatant attempt to curry favor with the Greek organizations, which are major voting blocs for AUSG elections. The case was referred to J-Board by Jeremy Ward of the Founder’s Week team, an executive branch position under the Vice President. The J-Board chose not to act on the case because the only alleged violation was campaigning in “bad faith,” which the Board did not want to rule on because of the vague wording. The Judicial Board had ruled that the bad faith standard was unworkable in previous cases. Even though the J-Board retreated from the case, there were consequences: Thordsen quickly fired Gaskill.


Right after this fiasco, the voting period began on Monday, March 28th. At the same time, the case that would lead to decertification began. The Elections Commission has a rule against campaigning in the Mary Graydon Center, which Brodie violated on the first day of the election. Upon learning of the situation, the acting Elections Commissioner Chair Evan Rein (Gordon was unavailable due to health reasons) texted and called Brodie to communicate how this was an infraction that evening. That could have been the end of it—but it wasn’t. The next day, the 29th, Brodie and her associates continued to campaign in Mary Graydon despite being directly ordered not to by the Elections Commission. This time, multiple people from AUSG were watching. The Thordsen campaign and AUSG Senator Ryan Hale, among others, watched and recorded Chyna and her team campaign. Thordsen also directed multiple people to submit written testimony about Cyna’s infraction. One interaction between Brodie’s team and the public was especially odd. Allegedly, Brodie’s staffer came up to two students and told them to vote in the election and watched one of them vote. Afterward, one of the students “called her out on it,” leading to the staffer offering the student “hush candy.” The student later described the events as alleged voter intimidation and bribery.


The recordings and testimony were passed along to the Elections Commission, who referred the matter to the J-Board. The members of the J-Board started their investigation on Wednesday the 30th, the same day the election ended. The Senate met that night for a tense, three hour certification hearing. When the dust settled, the Senate decertified the presidential election by a wide margin, and J-Board Chair Michael Picchi resigned.


The Senate’s rationale for decertifying is controversial, so it is important to lay out the facts of the case first. According to Former J-Board Chair Picchi, Elections Commissioner Vice-Chair Evan Rein, Senate Speaker Ashley Bastin, and Senator Ryan Hale, the Senate did not know the results of who won the presidency. The Elections Commission officially recommended certifying the election, but there are some technicalities there. Both Picchi and Rein (the acting Elections Commission Chair at the time of decertification) stated that the Commission can only recommend against certification in very limited circumstances (detailed later), so the “recommendation” was not exactly wholehearted. Picchi, also serving as Inspector for the J-Board, recommended decertification to the Senate. In an interview, Picchi stated he resigned because “I’m overworked… and need to focus in school, and no matter what I do and how close I follow the rules members will threaten to take my job away.”


So, why did the Senate vote to decertify? There are two main stories. The first, coming from Senators Hale, Bastin, Logan Galami, Miles Levin, and others, was that the campaign violations and the open J-Board case concerned them. They wanted to give time to the J-Board to let the case play out before the results were certified. One concern many senators raised is that the J-Board has the power to disqualify Brodie from the election. These legislators wanted to avoid a situation where the results were announced only for the J-Board to void them. Others, including Galami, wanted to avoid setting a precedent that election policy could be violated with no consequence.


The second story paints the Senate as extremely biased and unfair. Senator Nika Gogishvili-Matthews alleged that the decertification was politically motivated by anti-Brodie senators who didn’t want her to win. Comptroller Paul Relyea characterized the decertification as the result of “an anti-Democratic effort by the Thordsen campaign.” Brodie released a statement publicly claiming that the decertification was racially motivated because, as a Black woman, she was more heavily scrutinized than her white peers and rivals. When asked, Relyea had “no reason to dispute or challenge [Brodie’s] assessment.”


News of the decertification was quickly broken by The Eagle, to widespread controversy. It was at this point that the Center for Student Involvement (CSI) stepped in. CSI is the university administration’s office that oversees all the student organizations on campus, including AUSG. The morning after decertification, Thursday the 31st, CSI staff met with the Elections Commission (with Chair Sarah Gordon back at the helm) to discuss the situation. Both Gordon and the CSI staff agreed that the Senate needed to redo the certification. That meeting set the stage for a special Saturday session of the Senate. While some Senators, notably Ryan Hale, were still trying to maintain the votes to decertify, CSI’s involvement had changed things. It was clear to everyone that CSI was threatening to overturn the decertification and release the results without Senate approval.


In the Saturday session, Gordon gave a statement that the Senate did not have the power to decertify based on campaign violations or ideas of fairness. She stressed the decertification should be reserved mainly for procedural issues, inducing disenfranchisement and abject corruption. Usually, this occurs for glitches in software (like in this election, where some Kogod majors were unable to vote for Kogod elections). CSI Associate Director Asa Mack interrupted Gordon (and interrupted the parliamentary procedure of the Senate) to give his concurring thoughts on the situation.


When the Senate started its certification discussion, the debate was heated and extended. Mack interrupted again to reiterate his pro-certification arguments and publicly announce that CSI would certify the election, no matter what. After much turmoil, the Senate finally voted to certify the presidential election. After talking with many Senators and AUSG members, the consensus is that CSI’s involvement pressured the Senate into certification.


And with that, the long, chaotic election was over. Gordon released the results, which showed that Brodie won by a large margin. The J-Board settled Brodie’s case via mediation (again under CSI involvement). The sanctions were a forced public apology, a revocation of an award, and a bar on Brodie endorsing candidates in the fall election. Even though the election is over, though, there will be consequences for the whole of AUSG going forward. Additionally, I discovered a lot of information about the student government’s recent and extended past that colors these events.


Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Senate?


Understanding the relationship between President Brodie and the Senate lends vital context to the election debacle. At the beginning of Fall 2021, Brodie was beginning her term as president. There was an even split between the “Pro-Brodie” and “Anti-Brodie” blocs in the Senate.


Recently, though, the Pro-Brodie bloc collapsed, and Brodie’s opponents consolidated power. This change in sentiment is driven mainly by Brodie’s alleged behavior towards the senators. Senators have claimed that Brodie either pressures, threatens, or harasses them on a regular basis. Senator Galami said that senators have often “felt pressure from phone calls,” in which the president or her team directs them how to vote, saying that Brodie will be upset if they fail to do so. In an HR report obtained by the Agora, Speaker Bastin described these as “spam-calling,” and another Senator alleged to me that these calls came at “uncomfortable hours.” Bastin also alleged that Brodie’s team threatened to cut dissenting Senators off from political support. That same HR report also detailed a specific instance of this threat: allegedly, Brodie and her team have been trying to isolate Senator Hale and stop anyone from working with him in any fashion. At one point, the president called Hale a “snake,” and she has directly ordered people to not work with him. Multiple AUSG members told me that on one occasion, Brodie went into Speaker Bastin’s office and aggressively cussed her out. One senator stated that Brodie has, at multiple times, screamed at people. A different senator told me that Brodie spread rumors about the senators. The HR report also details how Brodie threatened to publicly call Bastin a racist if she went through with creating a seating chart for Senate meetings. Multiple people I spoke to were fearful of Brodie and what she could do to them, especially in a second term. It seems that the president has created a culture of fear and apprehension in AUSG.


In one especially unusual case, President Brodie allegedly attempted to redirect funds from the Secretary’s budget to her personal stipend. One position in the Secretary's cabinet was empty, and Brodie pressured Secretary Natarajan into supporting a transfer of the assigned stipend to the President’s pay. AUSG’s HR department stated that Brodie sought the money because the Senate, under the direction of Finance Chair Ryan Hale, did not give the president a stipend raise in Fall 2021.


There are also allegations against the Senate. Comptroller Relyea informed me that, while previous Senate-Executive interactions had been professional, the current Senate under Speaker Bastin had destroyed the relationship. He specifically pointed out the Senate revocation of Executive speaking rights as a point of contention between the branches. In January 2022, the Senate parliamentarian decided to restrict the ability of the executives (President, Vice-President, Comptroller, and Secretary) to speak at Senate meetings, a right they previously had much more leeway with. This ruling came in the wake of J-Board confirmation hearings which the executives participated in, apparently in a manner that the senators found annoying. Relyea accused the Senate of trying to “bludgeon” the Executive branch and being “frustrated that they don’t get their way when it comes to legislation.” He also stated that any claims of Brodie harassing or pressuring senators had “little basis.” Relyea characterized Brodie’s messages as such: “Prior to the suspension of Executive speaking rights, we could all voice approval or disapproval of legislation in meetings. Now that we can no longer do so, to the great pleasure of this Speaker, many conversations happen privately.” The Comptroller believes that under Bastin, the Senate was growing more toxic and petty. Some of the more active members of the Senate have definitely pushed the envelope against the executives. Senator Ryan Hale filed so many inquiries to the Judicial Board (many involving the executives) that Relyea filed his own inquiry to limit Hale’s inquiry power.


Overall, it seems like the legislative and executive branches of AUSG are in disarray, and there are numerous complaints from all parties against each other. It was this tenuous relationship that set the stage for the Senate to decertify the presidential election. No administrators from CSI or the Office for Equity and Title IX have found that the senators acted with any sort of racial or gender bias—although cases of implicit bias usually leave no trace. Political bias, however, is definitely present. The most likely explanation is that the already-indignant Senate jumped on Brodie’s clear violation of AUSG rules and used the infraction to justify the decertification.


These tensions have surfaced again post-election. As of writing, Brodie has been suspended again—this time because of an HR investigation. If the Senate rejects Brodie’s appeal, Brodie will be suspended from office for the rest of the current term, in which case Comptroller Relyea would complete the term on Brodie’s behalf.


Continued in Part II.


Chyna Brodie did not respond to a request for an interview.


Kevin Sciackitano is a third-year Economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the Acting Editor-In-Chief for the Agora.


Photo taken by the American Agora.

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