WSGA senators report ‘monetary bribe’ by president

Mark Feuerborn

Washburn Student Government Association senators are claiming WSGA president Alexis Simmons offered a paid appointment to a senator for a favorable vote during their Nov. 15 public Senate meeting.

Attempts to reach Simmons for comment were directed to Public Relations Director Katie Wade, who released a joint public statement with comments from herself and Simmons regarding the incident. In the statement, Simmons said she offered a paid chair position to senator Tristan Weinbrenner after Simmons nominated Stephanie Jones for Legislative and Research Director.

“…In an effort to develop a supportive team of leadership, I offered sen. Weinbrenner a paid chair position over the phone after informing him that the nomination had been offered to someone else,” Simmons said. “At the Senate meeting, after sen. Weinbrenner voted unfavorable on the nominee, I mentioned to sen. Weinbrenner that I would feel uncomfortable giving him said leadership position if he voted down the nominee to the exec team. Prior to the final vote on the nomination, sen. [Alex] Lasher requested sen. Weinbrenner reveal my lobbied offer. Senators Lasher and [Lauren] Mulanax then expressed concerns of disrespect and abuse of power.”

Weinbrenner declined to comment on Simmons’ statement and the incident. The meeting minutes recorded by Administrative Assistant Jack Siebert also have no record of the incident beyond whether the three executive nominees were approved or not. The label “confidential” was present next to each of them.

Lasher said votes were taking place on executive cabinet nominations when the alleged bribe attempt took place, those nominated being Victoria Toothaker, Sarah Arriaga and Jones. Jones was voted on first to approve her for the executive position of Legislative and Research Director.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Traevor McPherson said that the vote failed 11-13. He added that voting on the three nominees was added to the agenda during the meeting by a bill raised by senator Sydney Fox, instead of being approved by him, which is not standard procedure.

“A by-law passed earlier in the year requires that the Executive [Office] publish the agenda to the senators 24 hours in advance,” McPherson said. “One hour and 15 minutes before the meeting, the Executive asked me to approve adding the three executive nominations to the agenda to let the Senate confirm them. I refused, citing the lateness of the request and a large amount of business that the Senate already needed to consider.”

Lasher said that the short notice prevented the Senate from researching or discussing the candidates, which contributed to the unfavorable vote on Jones.

“Some of us didn’t feel like she had the qualifications for it, because she had never been on Senate,” Lasher said. “A lot of us felt she needed to be on Senate to understand the legislative process.”

In her public statement, however, Simmons said Jones had an endorsement.

“Despite the current director’s support of the nominee, multiple senators expressed belief that the nominee was unqualified for this position,” Simmons said.

The Senate then passed votes to accept Arriaga to the executive position of Chief of Staff and Toothaker as Public Relations and Marketing Director. The two were previously senators but were not permitted to vote on Jones due to their nominations. Lasher said some discussion took place on allowing Arriaga and Toothaker to participate in a second vote on Jones’ position, but this was rejected. McPherson elaborated on the Senate’s reasoning.

“Former senators Toothaker and Arriaga, once confirmed to their positions, took their positions immediately,” McPherson said. “Therefore, they were no longer senators, and could not vote.”

During the discussion on Toothaker and Arriaga before the second vote on Jones, Lasher said he saw Simmons approach Weinbrenner – the last senator to vote in alphabetical order – and speak with him privately. Mulanax confirmed she saw the interaction as well.

“I think [Weinbrenner] was kind of shocked,” Mulanax said.

Before the vote, Lasher asked Weinbrenner to tell the Senate what Simmons had said to him.

“He paused for a second, and then he said ‘President Simmons told me that if I voted yes, she would appoint me Communications Chair, and if I voted no, she would not,’” Lasher said. “It was the most corrupt and ridiculous event that I have ever seen at a WSGA meeting in my two-and-a-half years on Senate. I have never seen a president hold a chair position over a senator’s head to get the vote they wanted.”

McPherson said that if Weinbrenner had switched his vote to yes, the vote would have been tied 12-12.

“Then the Vice President would cast a tie-breaking vote,” McPherson said. “If the Vice President cast a tie-breaking vote in favor, the nomination would have been accepted.”

While senators are not paid, committee chair positions are paid $250 per semester through funds from the $55 activity fee each student at Washburn pays, and are selected by the president without requiring a vote like executive positions do.

Following Weinbrenner’s statement, Lasher said that multiple senators including himself and Mulanax were recognized to speak, and criticized Simmons’ offer to Weinbrenner. Mulanax was the first to speak.

“I was very upset, and very animated,” Mulanax said. “It was a complete abuse of power. That by default is a monetary bribe. I could not believe that she would do that to a member of our student body.”

Following these criticisms, the vote was held. No details on the second vote were provided in the meeting minutes, but Lasher said following this exchange Jones’ nomination was rejected a second time by a larger margin.

“Five or six people switched votes,” Lasher said.

Mulanax said the vote on Jones probably would have been favorable the second time around if the bribe had not been attempted.

“I switched votes from yes to no,” Mulanax said. “I switched my vote not because of Stephanie, but completely because of what Alexis did. I feel very awful for Stephanie and I wish this had not affected her.”

Lasher said he believes resistance to Simmons was necessary in that meeting because these incidents can hurt WSGA’s reputation with the student body, and discourage involvement in student government.

“I think that just by doing that, she’s made so many senators angry,” Lasher said. “We don’t want students to think we’re just some gang of people who hand out money to people for votes. Be aware that – in this case – we will be doing something.”

Beyond this, in her public statement, Wade – who is succeeded by incoming Public Relations and Marketing Director Toothaker – said no feedback has been given from senators since the meeting.

“Though Pres. Simmons and Adviser Jessica Neumann-Barraclough both promote their willingness to sit down and discuss senators’ grievances, neither has had any such meeting or communication with any senator about Pres. Simmons’ conduct,” Wade said.

Mulanax and Lasher both said they are exploring legislation to change the committee chair appointment system.

“I’m probably going to pass a by-law changing [committee appointments] from the president appointing committee chairs to the Senate appointing committee chairs,” Lasher said. “That way it moves it away from political appointees to the Senate picking who’s best for the job. Transparency is important, it’s student fees that we’re dealing with.”

Mulanax said she and Lasher are open to talking with any students regarding concerns and forward action.

“We are, first and foremost, students serving students,” Mulanax said.