Illustration by Brendon Lies.
Illustration by Brendon Lies.

Behind Closed Doors

The semester is almost over, we still don’t have a new student body president, and the people in charge of the election host secret meetings that may break state laws.

April 23, 2014

Associate Dean of Students Terry Mena. Photo Courtesy of FAU Media Relations.
Associate Dean of Students Terry Mena. Photo Courtesy of FAU Media Relations.

[Editor’s Note: The web version of this story is accurate, however, the print version included an inaccuracy due to an editing error. The story indicated that a meeting on Feb. 25 may have been a violation of Sunshine Law, but it was a public meeting. We stand by our reporting that other meetings indicated in the story allegedly violated Sunshine Law, as confirmed by an expert from the First Amendment Foundation.]

In February, Michael Cepeda won the most votes for student body president.

Almost two months later, there is no official winner and the Elections Board may have violated state law. The Elections Board is a four member board who oversees the presidential elections and ensures that Student Government presidential candidates do nothing illegal.

According to Barbara Petersen, president of the state’s First Amendment Foundation, the board may have broken Sunshine Law when they held private meetings about the elections. Sunshine Law requires board meetings be open to the public, that they give 24 hours notice of the meetings and that detailed minutes are taken — none of which the Elections Board did.

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Audio Recording of Barbara Petersen.

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The first possible violation happened on Feb. 25, the first day that students were able to vote. The online voting system crashed and students couldn’t vote. The Board scheduled an emergency meeting to reschedule the election (see timeline). After that, they held a private meeting to reschedule the election again, which may have violated the law.

When told that the Elections Board failed to hold a public meeting to change the decision they made in the emergency meeting, Petersen said in a phone interview that the Board violated the law.

“There is no such thing in Florida law as a private meeting,” Petersen said. “All meetings at which public business is to be transacted or discussed — Board business in this case — must be open and noticed to the public.”

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Audio Recording of Barbara Petersen.

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But the possible violations didn’t stop there.

On Feb. 27, the board members held a private meeting again. This time with Associate Dean of Students Terry Mena, current Student Body President Patrick Callahan, Elections Board Chair Michael Brown and SG advisers Ryan Frierson, Bill Horstman and Elyse Chaplin. So said Mena and Brown.

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Audio Recording of Michael Brown.

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The meeting’s purpose was to change the deadlines for expense and complaint forms, where candidates state what they spent their campaign money on and accuse their opponents of violating election rules, respectively.

Despite these private meetings, Mena said that they didn’t violate any laws.

“There is no requirement that says that it has to be a voted-on meeting,” Mena said.

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Audio Recording of Terry Mena.

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Elections Board Chair Michael Brown. Photo by Michelle Friswell.
Elections Board Chair Michael Brown. Photo by Michelle Friswell.

While SG statute 306.400 states that the board can “develop and approve elections timelines,” statute 305.510 states that “elections meetings are subject to Sunshine Law.”

Therefore, holding meetings that don’t meet the requirements of the law are illegal, according to Petersen.

“If they’re subject to the Sunshine, and it seems that their own bylaws say they are…and they held a meeting and they didn’t provide notice, that’s a violation of the law,” Petersen said.

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Audio Recording of Barbara Petersen.

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In order to legally determine if the Elections Board broke the law, someone would have to take them to court.  If the court ruled that the board’s violations were intentional, FAU would have to defend them in court.

If found intentionally guilty, board members could spend up to 60 days in jail, be removed from their positions, pay all court fees and be fined up to $500, according to Sunshine Law.

If found unintentionally guilty, the board members would not go to jail and could keep their positions, but would still be forced to pay a $500 fine and court fees.

“If a court determines that there’s a violation of the Sunshine, then action would be void ab initio,” Petersen said.

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Audio Recording of Barbara Petersen.

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This means that their decisions made during the Elections Board private meetings and anything resulting from them do not count.

That would mean the Elections Board would have to redo the whole election.

But even if no one takes SG to court, students may still not know the winner for a long time because the candidates had all of spring break to gather evidence and try to prove what rules their opponents broke. According to the Elections Chair Mike Brown, candidates typically only have 24 hours.

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Audio Recording of Michael Brown.

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The unofficial results were announced the day before spring break and according to Mena, the board does not count those days as business days even though SG officials can still get paid.

Now, more complaints have been filed than in previous years according to SG Boca Raton adviser Ryan Frierson — further prolonging the process of getting a president. Last year set the record for the most complaints filed with seven. This year, there are 28.

Current Student Body President Patrick Callahan and the current Vice President Katie Morris filed 21 complaints. The board brought this down to 17 based on lack of evidence for the others. Cepeda and DeMaio initially filed seven complaints, which was brought down to six for the same reason.

The Elections Board decided that Cepeda and DeMaio didn’t break rules that could get them disqualified, so Callahan and Morris appealed the decision all the way up to Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Charles Brown (see timeline).

Right now the decision is up to Charles Brown, unless the Elections Board is taken to court and found guilty of breaking Sunshine Law.

The current presidential term ends May 2. As of publication time, Brown has not released a decision.

Check Upressonline.com for regular updates.

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Below is the Timeline of Election Events:

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Feb 25: The voting period starts.
Feb. 25: Voting system isn’t allowing students to vote and the Elections Board calls an emergency meeting, changing the voting period from noon on Feb. 26 to noon on Feb. 28 .
Feb 26:  At 10:24 a.m. students receive an email stating that voting started at 10 a.m. and the Elections Board may have broken Sunshine Law.
Feb. 27: The Elections Board privately meets to discuss new election deadlines making complaint forms (forms that accuse their opponents of violating election rules) due on March 10. The Elections Board possibly breaks Sunshine Law.
Feb. 28: Unofficial election results are announced — Michael Cepeda and Thomas DeMaio are the winners.
March 6: The Elections Board Chair emails the candidates stating that the complaint deadline has changed again to March 11. The Elections Board possibly breaks Sunshine Law again.
March 11: The Elections Board meets to review complaints, deciding which are valid.
March 18: The Elections Board hears the complaints filed by Cepeda/DeMaio against Patrick Callahan and Katie Morris.
March 28 and April 1: The Elections Board hears complaints filed by Callahan/Morris against Cepeda/DeMaio. Callahan will later appeal the board’s decisions.
April 4: Student Court hears appeals to the Elections Board’s decisions.
April 15: Callahan/Morris appeals to Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Charles Brown.

[SOURCES: Sg.edu/election, Elections Board Meeting Minutes, Emails from SG officials obtained by the UP][/su_tab] [su_tab title=”Complaints Breakdown”]

After the SG elections candidates are allowed to file complaints, and if candidates violated SG’s Constitution or Statutes, they could be disqualified. This year, more complaints were filed than ever. The following complaints were considered either major or minor violations.

Major violations: Could be punishable with a disqualification

Minor violations: A total of three could mean a major violation if students are found guilty by the Board

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Cepeda/DeMaio complaints against Callahan/Morris:

SPR 14.09 – Accused Callahan/Morris of using a tent on an election day without proper paperwork being filed.

SPR 14.10 – Accused Callahan/Morris of using the trademarked FAU logo in a campaign video.

SPR 14.13 – Accused Callahan/Morris of campaigning at the Hard-Hats for Education SG event, against Elections Board instructions saying that the event was off-limits to campaigning. The Elections Board charged Callahan/Morris with a minor violation, totalling three, which the Board ruled to be equal to a major violation. However, as with the previous violations, the Board ruled that there was no way to determine if these action had an effect on the outcome of the elections, and thus did not disqualify Callahan/Morris.

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Callahan/Morris complaints against Cepeda/DeMaio:

SPR 14.15, SPR 14.16, SPR 14.20 – Accused Cepeda/DeMaio of not listing their addresses on their campaign expense forms, saying that they were given donations and used an unapproved cooler.

SPR 14.17 – Accused Cepeda/DeMaio of receiving unapproved lemonade as a campaign donation.

SPR 14.21, SPR 14.22, SPR 14.23, SPR 14.24, SPR 14.25, SPR 14.29, SPR 14.33 – Accused Cepeda/DeMaio of using the official FAU logo on their campaign Twitter and Facebook page without authorization and using the logo in pictures taken with FAU sports teams on three different occasions. SPR 14.21, 14.25, 14.29, and 14.3 were all given minor violations, totalling 6 so far, which led the Elections Board to charge Cepeda/DeMaio with two major violations. However, the Elections Board said the violations had not directly affected the outcome of the voting and Cepeda/DeMaio was not disqualified.

[SOURCES: Elections Board]

[/su_tab] [su_tab title=”2013-2014 Salaries and Election Expenses”]

The amounts spent on the elections process that come out of the Activities and Service fee:

 

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Tables taken from SG Activity and Service Fee Budget (Fiscal Year 2013-2014)[/su_tab][su_tab title=”Student Government Elections Appeals Process”]

Student Government Elections Appeals Process:

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1. Posting of Unofficial Results and Initial Contestations:

  • After the posting of the Unofficial Results of the election, Candidates are given a period of time to prepare and file contestations against other candidates to be heard by the Elections Board. Normally, this period is 24 hours and ends the Friday after the posting of the results. For the Spring 2014 Elections, the period was extended through Spring Break and into the following Tuesday, due to the delays with the voting system.

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2. Elections Board Initial Hearings

  • After the filing of contestations, the Elections Board holds initial hearings regarding contestations, examining each one for relevance, legal basis (in the Student Statutes), and evidence. Contestations that don’t meet those criteria are dismissed outright, the remaining ones are scheduled to receive full hearings by the Board at a later date.

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3. Elections Board Rulings

  • After vetting the contestations, the Elections Board holds hearings for the remaining ones, hearing testimonies from both sides of each contestation, and weighing the provided evidence. The Board then rules on each contestation, either dismissing it, or reprimanding the offending candidate with a violation. Violations are either minor, which did not have a discernible impact on the elections results, or major, which are grounds for disqualification from the election. Three minor violations are considered equivalent to a major violation.

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4. Student Court Appeals

  • After the Elections Board hears and rules on filed contestations, candidates may appeal the Board’s decisions to the Student Court, which will then hold a hearing for each appeal. The Student Court can either uphold the Elections Board decision or overturn it, thus removing violations from affected elections candidates. The Student Court also hears cases where the Elections Board itself is the defendant, if any are filed.

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5. Appeals to the Senior Vice President of Student Affairs

  • Once Student Court hearings are concluded, candidates may still make a final appeal to the Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, Charles Brown. After hearing the appeal, the Senior VP makes a final decision, which cannot be overturned.

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Below you will find photographs of matierials relating to the election. Click on Images to view them full-size:

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