Student Government doesn’t want to show you the money

Two weeks ago, Student Government Controller Mike Hallenstein was in a good mood. The 37-year-old accounting major was picking up his latest paycheck, and it totaled $1,056 – about $736 more than he usually gets.

That’s because in October, SG had given itself a 25-percent pay raise. What’s more, the raise was retroactive, meaning that no less than 15 SG members would receive back pay – all the way back to July 1.

But Hallenstein wasn’t in a good mood when the University Press questioned him about his newfound cash. Since being asked for the records about who got exactly what money, Hallenstein has threatened to freeze the UP‘s payroll and even said SG would consider shutting down the student newspaper for “ethical violations.” He did not elaborate on the violations.

Most other senior SG leaders, who sit on a powerful panel called the University Wide Council (UWC), either won’t comment or are saying little. And their boss, Student Body President Alvira Khan, has not only refused to comment but has accused the UP of “abuse” in pursuing this story.

One person who has a lot to say is Khan’s immediate predecessor, Ancel Pratt. The former student body president believes that the raise and the retroactive pay are “immoral.”

“I think it is fiscally irresponsible,” Pratt says. “You can put my name on it with an exclamation mark.”

Pratt says that, as far as he knows, SG pay has been the same for the past 3-4 years. He says there haven’t been any extraordinarily different duties that would warrant a raise: “This was done without justification. Their job was not any different from last year’s. It’s always been a 40- to 50-hour-a-week job.”

Typical of the current SG administration’s comments were these from Dan Wilson, the Boca governor, who sits on the UWC: “I didn’t have input on it….I really have no opinion on that.”

He refused to comment further, but five minutes later, he tracked down a UP reporter and added that the raise was necessary, citing inflation and the 40-hour week SG officials put into the job.

Brent Dell, who was student body vice president under Pratt, acknowledges that SG leaders work longer hours than they’re paid, but he says they choose to take that position. For instance, the student body president manages at least 10-15 people, makes important connections and gains valuable experience. “Where do you ever get that kind of opportunity?” Dell asks.

Dell recalls that, in February, the UWC was going to give a pay raise to the president and a few other high-ranking officers – but only a 50-cent or $1-per-hour hike at most. “A 25-percent raise is a little extreme. It means that the SBP [student body president] is making $11.50 an hour,” Dell says.

MacArthur SG Governor Noemi Coltea, who’s also a UWC member, remembers the February pay-raise debate. “I raised the point – yeah, everybody needs it,” Coltea says, adding that the reason they decided not to put it through then was because of the upcoming SG elections in March. “It’s not something you do before an election.”

But it was something that UWC members decided to do in October. They didn’t advertise it, and they didn’t even vote on it. Instead, they simply agreed that President Khan would transfer money from a discretionary fund she controls, confirms an SG source who was at the meeting but doesn’t want his name printed, for fear of retribution.

The fund’s purpose is to allow student body presidents to quickly launch special projects during their yearlong term. During Fall 2003, Pratt used the fund to help buy 4,000 “SAF Cards” – specially coated cards that, when put in contact with a liquid, indicate the presence of so-called “date-rape drugs.” Pratt distributed these cards to students so they could test their drinks – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic – to see if anyone had tampered with them.

Pratt isn’t happy that his successor has decided a 25-percent retroactive pay raise constitutes a special project to benefit students. “The retroactive pay raise is ludicrous,” he says.

It’s also impossible to tell just when the UWC agreed to give itself the raise. Not only was the move unannounced, the SG website (www.sga.fau.edu) lists minutes to only one UWC meeting, on Oct. 8. The only reference to the pay hike is this comment from Hallenstein, “We haven’t done the conversion for the pay raise.” No explanation is given.

Even Lisa Bardill, the associate dean of Student Affairs and SG’s official adviser, doesn’t know much about what happened. She has no record of the meeting date but believes it was Oct. 1.

SG leaders won’t provide further details to the UP, despite a public-records request filed under Florida law. Hallenstein even refused to provide a copy of SG’s annual budget unless FAU attorney David Kian “tells Alvira [Khan] to do so.” Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, the UP did not have time to reach Kian before deadline.

Because Khan is in charge of the pay hike and its retroactive component, many SG leaders are deferring to Khan instead of commenting themselves – even though they benefit from her move.

Asked about the pay raise, Broward SG Governor Sameko Munro said, “That’s for the student body president to answer,” even though he’s a member of the UWC himself. When asked about the retroactive pay raise, at first he said, “I have no comment.” When asked again, he replied, “I agree with her. It is in our Constitution – it says the president speaks on behalf of the Student Government.”

When called for comment about the pay raise on Monday, Nov. 22, Khan would only say, “The SG funds the UP.”

About 10 minutes later, Controller Michael Hallenstein walked into the UP newsroom and declared, “I am freezing all of your accounts RIGHT NOW.” When Co-Executive Editor Rick Smith asked, “Can we know why?” Hallenstein left without answering.

UP Managing Editor Jake Smith walked over to the SG office and asked Hallenstein again about freezing the newspaper’s budget. “Your assets are being frozen because you don’t know how to act ethically,” he said. He did not elaborate. As of press time, the UP‘s accounts are still active.

President Khan then walked into the room and told Jake Smith that Co-Executive Editor Lily Ladeira had called her for an interview earlier that day. Khan said that Ladeira had been rude. Ladeira, Khan said, had called her “stupid.” (Ladeira claims she merely remarked to Hallenstein in an earlier interview that a student body president “would be stupid not to talk to the press” about such an unprecedented pay raise.)

The UP also contacted SG leaders from other schools across the state, but none would comment. Typical of these curt replies was this from Steven Russell, student body president at the University of West Florida in Pensacola: “I don’t want to comment on if it was wrong or right. I can comment on how well Alvira represents the students of FAU….She represents the students very well.”

Scott Ross, the executive director of the Florida Student Association, a lobbying group for student governments at Florida’s public universities, would only say, “I don’t want to be a part of an anti-FAU/SGA article. I have a great relationship with them.”

At the least, former Vice President Brent Dell says, SG should have asked FAU’s students whether such a pay raise was justifiable. “You are there to work for the students, and they should have a say,” he says. “I wonder if the student body would have said yes.”

Editor Vanessa Frost contributed to this report.

Online note: see actual newspaper for all graphics