Accused ASUCR senators address Leg Con scandal

Taken by Lin Chai

Last Wednesday’s ASUCR senate meeting revolved around Senators Esther Hwang and Albert Yum’s digressions from their lobbying duties on a university-funded trip to Washington D.C. The meeting’s public forum period lasted nearly two hours and allowed students to voice their dismay and frustration toward the two senators who, in turn, provided their own perspective on the controversy. “I will be stepping out as the campus organizing director,” stated Hwang, whose position as an ASUCR senator remains intact, although she has since ended her re-election campaign for 2012-2013.

BCOE Senator and Vice President of External Affairs Andrew Whall has yet to determine whether Hwang, Yum or any other senator will be charged a $500 fee (the total cost per traveler was $774) for breaching a pre-trip contract. The discussion concluded with senators making strong recommendations toward restricting ties with the United States Student Association (USSA) due to a trend of fund misappropriation occurring at USSA events. Also witnessed during the meeting was the passage of a resolution supporting Speaker John Perez’s Middle Class Scholarship Act.

The Legislative Convention (Leg Con) controversy was first brought to light over two weeks ago, when it was first revealed that the two senators skipped numerous lobbying sessions and workshops during the USSA-funded event. During part of the trip, Hwang and Yum traveled to New York for non-lobbying activities. The two senators, however, emphasized that their New York-related expenditures were not funded by UC Riverside–which paid $9,292.92 to send 12 delegates on the trip. The senators and other delegates also made the point that the trip itself was highly unorganized to the extent that lobbying assignments were not revealed until the night before the event itself. This rationale was largely met with indifference by audience members such as Cecilia Luna.

“Why would you book a flight during that day when you know that lobby visits are scheduled throughout that day?” asked Luna, who attended Leg Con, in reference to Hwang and Yum’s early departure from the main lobbying day in order to leave to New York. “You’re telling me that you got a ticket to go to New York and you didn’t know the schedule or the agenda, but why didn’t you wait until the agenda came out and then, you know, bought your flight? You were there at the conference for the students,” stated Reema Moosa, whose letter to ASUCR Executive Director Laurie Sinclair was the basis for the leak of the news. “Just seeing you walk off with Albert while I’m there marching, while I’m there screaming and you’re just walking off to just catch a flight? That was really disrespectful.”

When questioned about the lack of lobbying, Hwang acknowledged that she did not lobby due to the miscommunication and disorganization that had plagued the convention. Hwang indicated that the departure time of her New York trip had conflicted with the day of the rally, and felt that lobbying was ultimately not the only purpose of the convention; Hwang then proceeded to explain how lobbying could also be done through state and local congressional offices. Members of the audience such as Alfonso Ruiz, however, pointed back to the contract and denounced Hwang for failing to attend the significant portions of the convention with the intention of bringing back knowledge for the students. Hwang expressed remorse, calling it a “careless error on [her] part,” and reiterated that she had resigned as campus organizing director (COD) of ASUCR’s external office.

Many speakers cited the legal contract that had been signed by both senators and selected student delegates who attended Leg Con. “I will bring back to campus what I have learned and participate in any event within the issues faced on my campus,” stated the contract. UC Riverside alumnus Latonya Young was among those who criticized the speakers for not having engaged in a debriefing session in order to share their experience with the campus. Young noted that without the debriefing, the Leg Con trip amounted to a “free vacation” for delegates since their involvement at the convention did not benefit the student population. The senate indicated that it was unknown when the debriefing session would take place.

Albert Yum also received his own share of condemnation during the public forum period. During the meeting, Yum noted that he had previously pushed for the general office to withdraw from the USSA due to the cost and focus of their events. “California has a lot of issues that we need to focus on right now, instead of focusing on the federal level,” stated Yum, whose comments were met with severe backlash from the audience. “You went [to Leg Con last year] knowing…that this was a waste of time and a waste of the students’ money; you went this year with that same mindset. So if you didn’t believe that the conference was a worthwhile conference to attend, why attend it?” inquired Latonya Young. Yum eventually apologized for failing to effectively voice his concerns against attending the convention.

Hwang and Yum’s behavior at the convention was temporarily dropped as senators and members of the public forum directed their grievances toward the USSA and Leg Con. Senate (YOU)CR candidate, Kevin Jo, reprimanded the inappropriate behavior of USSA members (Jo explained that at one point they were planning parties instead of preparing for the lobbying events) and also blamed the external office. “If we want to be fair as a senate, I demand an apology for the students, not just from Esther, not just from Albert but from…everyone at the external affairs office.”

UC Riverside student and member of the external office David Castillo countered that the criticisms of the convention and its organizers distracted from the fact that the delegates still failed to carry out their legally-binding responsibilities. “My apology came when I partook in a non-violent disobedient action and I was arrested…at the end of the day I was there and i was advocating for the students” stated Castillo, whose remarks were met with applause from audience members.”

The public forum period concluded with Senator Andrew Whall outlining the conclusions of the meeting—namely, that Esther will lose her COD position and that USSA will be placed on a probation period. “I can tell you for sure [that] next year we’re not going to have a Leg Con and we’re not going to have a conference. We’re going to be very limited and restricted in the way that we participate in any way with USSA,” stated Whall. This remark was met with opposition from crowd members such as Alfonso Ruiz, who argued that USSA was an important organization since part of their activities involve lobbying for pell grants.

Senate reports included President Stephen Lee’s desire for a resolution regarding the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis, Senator Nicholas Park’s announcement that the campus Coffee Bean would be implementing solar panels and Senator Andrew Whall’s interest in bringing Speaker John Perez (author of the Middle Class Scholarship Act) to UC Riverside. The senate reports—which usually compose the bulk of senate meetings–were presented to a much smaller audience since many students departed after the public forum period.

“I’m glad and proud of the students that came…I agree with a lot of the things that they said. But at the same time if you’re so worried about the things that we do, the things that we spend [ASUCR] money on, you should at least stay for the full meeting [and] listen to what we’re actually doing with your money,” stated Senator Park, who noted that the turnout during the public forum period was the biggest that he had ever seen. Meanwhile, Senator Whall acknowledged that the meeting was difficult but that students’ voices were heard and acted upon by senators. “I feel like the students there were satisfied with [the] decision that resulted; they were glad that some action was taken,” stated Whall in an interview with the Highlander.

The next ASUCR senate meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 2 at 5:10 p.m. in the Senate Chambers (HUB 221).

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