It’s official: there is no law in the ASUO constitution against blatant conflict of interest. The Constitutional Court of the ASUO ruled today that Senator Nate Gulley was not in violation of the ASUO constitution when he voted “aye” on a special request for $2,000 which paid for him to travel to Washington DC as a member of a United States Student Association delegation. The courts ruling denied the grievance filed by myself, by ignoring the obviousness of the violation and by shunning the numerous constitutional interpretations which could have done justice to the situation. The courts ruling was timid and inconsistent, picking and choosing precedent in order to avoid the obviousness of the violation.
The cornerstone of my grievance was article 4 S 6, which states “Conflict of interest prohibited. No member holding an elected position on the Student Senate, the ASUO Programs Finance Committee, the Athletic Department Finance Committee, or the EMU Board may vote on the budget of any ASUO or EMU program in which they will be holding a paid position during the year the fiscal budget is in effect. This section shall be construed so as to prohibit conduct that creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, as well as an actual conflict of interest.” The opinion of the court begins by stating that “Article 4 § 6 of the ASUO Constitution is perhaps one of the most confusing and vague passages of the entire document” due to its narrow prohibition in sentence two, and broadly interpretable clauses in sentences 1 and 3. The court then goes on to overrule its own precedent from 1997(Berwick v. Wisch), in which the broad interpretations were used to find a Senator guilty of” the appearance conflict of interest,” simply ruling that “The Court finds the conclusion reached in this case to be in error.” What follows is a lengthy history of section 4 S 6, which in effect limits the broad clauses (sentences 1 and 3) to cases covered by the narrow definition (sentence 2). Lengthy analysis of the history and evolution of section 4 S 6 simply obfuscate the fundamental point: IF THEY ONLY APPLY TO THE ONE EXPLICIT PROSCRIPITION, WHY IN THE FUCK WERE THESE BROADLY INTERPRETABLE CLAUSES PUT INTO THE CONSTITUTION IN THE FIRST PLACE??? Yes, Mr Justices, the narrow clause has been altered, but the broad clauses have always been there, for the simple reason that the framers wanted to be able to proscribe obvious cases of conflict of interest without enumerating every possible permutation of such conflict. By overruling existing precedent which allows the Con Court to use these broad clauses as the framers intended, Con Court effectively legislates these clauses out of our functional jurisprudence.
It goes without saying that the ASUO Con Court has precedent which rules both ways on this. The court cites several cases in which the “narrow only” definition is upheld, including most recently the case of Mann v. Morales, in which then OC Editor Thomas Mann charged that IFC member Armando Morales “had violated Article 4 § 6 of the ASUO Constitution during a meeting of the IFC by arguing in favor of, and voting for, an increase in the budget of the USSA, a group which he was the vice chair of. Mann maintained that although Morales was not being paid in cash for his position in the program, he had participated in a trip to Washington D.C. partially funded from the programs budget and this was a form of payment. Furthermore Mann argued that Morales violated the third sentence of Article 4 § 6 by creating at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Apparently, the wierd parallels were more than the Con Court could overlook, and upheld the decision in that case, that the court “is not empowered” to change the admittedly “very narrow definition of a conflict.” Mr Mann, if you are out there, we need to have a beer sometime… this shit is crazy.
My grievance also charged Gulley with violating Senate Rule 2,3 which requires meetings be run according to Roberts Rules of Order. This was included to provide more examples of conflict of interest than are found in the ASUO constitution, thus giving extra weight to my emphasis of the broad clauses of ASUO Constitution 4 S 6. Needless to say, the Con Court simply looked to the wording to find any way to do nothing about the situation. Roberts only states that “members should abstain,” and that they cannot be compelled to vote, despite my argument that the “should” language is only intended to explain the following section which includes situations which require this non-binding language. It goes without saying, that Gulleys actions do not fit into this “exceptions clause,” suggesting that he should be held to account.
I could go on and on about this, but let’s face it: the only difference it will make is a dramatic spike in my blood pressure. When I was drafting the grievance, I was shocked by the lack of explicit ethics rules on the books; now that I have put in the work to build the case, I am really not surprised at all that the Con Court simply preferred to pass the buck. The opinion they issued doesn’t begin to address the fact that Gulley’s conflict came in a vote on a special request, which should have a much more stringent ethical standard for the simple fact that it involves Senate literally handing out cash. This whole situation is doubly frustrating for me, because unlike some (most?) of the Commentariat before me, I have consistently offered the ASUO the benefit of the doubt and my sincere optimism for the institution, only to end up here. As someone who sits on two Senate committees, and spends more time trying to make things right on this campus than some Senators (without a fucking stipend, thank you) while raising awareness and giving constructive advice and criticism on this blog and in the magazine, I am totally disgusted with this system that I have struggled to help reform. The ASUO desperately needs a body of ethics rules, and guess who’s gonna have to write them up to get it done? Think Senators are gonna leap up and volunteer for this? No fucking way.