Updated: March 31, 2017 at 12:17 p.m.
Student Association presidential candidate Lande Watson will face an election violations hearing Friday after six complaints were filed against her campaign this week.
SA presidential candidate Cole Ettingoff filed a complaint Monday and Residence Hall Association President Ali Belinkie, who is identified as his girlfriend in the documents, filed the remaining five complaints Saturday. Members of the Joint Elections Committee – the group that oversees SA elections – will hear evidence for and against the accusations made about Watson, current SA leaders and members of her campaign during the hearing.
The complaints allege that members of Watson’s campaign committed a series of violations, ranging from starting a “smear campaign” against Ettingoff to bullying members of Ettingoff’s campaign. But students named in the accusations said Ettingoff’s and Belinkie’s claims were either distorted or false.
The JEC postponed this year’s elections by a week Tuesday evening in order to have enough time to investigate the claims for Friday’s hearing.
Ettingoff’s sole complaint accuses SA student leaders and members of Watson’s campaign with issuing false statements, tampering with evidence and generally failing to comply with JEC regulations.
“Bullying, harassment and stalking cannot be tolerated,” Ettingoff said in an email, echoing a previous statement he gave to The Hatchet Tuesday night, and declined to provide further details.
Belinkie did not return multiple requests for comment.
Watson said all of the claims are based on hearsay or the alleged experiences of one person, meaning there was not enough proof for Ettingoff and Belinkie to accuse members of her team of actions like stalking and harassment – claims that could seriously harm their reputations and futures.
“Every person who is mentioned, who is at all associated with our campaign or is being accused of something, those accusations are not based in fact,” she said.
Before the complaints were filed, the three presidential candidates met privately March 24 and agreed to run “clean” campaigns, SA presidential candidate Adam Johnson, who is not mentioned in any allegations, said. The meeting came after Center for Student Engagement Director Tim Miller told the candidates and their campaign managers after the March 23 debate that the violations and issues he had been hearing about needed to stop, Johnson said.
Complaints against SA leaders
Ettingoff alleges in his complaint that Nick Watkins, the SA chief of staff, told Ettingoff “in no uncertain terms” that he was supporting Watson and insinuated there would be an effort to stop Ettingoff from running.
Watkins said he had a 15 minute, informal conversation in the SA offices with Ettingoff in early February about the elections, but that he did not intimidate Ettingoff, tell Ettingoff that he should not run or say he personally supported Watson. Watkins, Watson and Ettingoff are all currently members of the SA executive cabinet.
Watkins said Ettingoff asked what he thought of the candidates, specifically Watson, to which Watkins responded that he “imagined Lande would win and make a fine president.” Watkins said that Ettingoff asked for Watkin’s opinion on whether or not he should run, to which Watkins said he likely wouldn’t enjoy the job of SA president.
“I gave him an analysis of what I thought was happening and if he took that as support for Lande he was false,” Watkins said. “I am hurt and disappointed that someone I thought was my friend would say these things about me.”
The same complaint – as well as one from Belinkie – alleged that SA President Erika Feinman was aware of Watson’s team running a “smear campaign” against Ettingoff. Belinkie’s statement said she heard that a member of Feinman’s sorority was trying to “spread the word” that “Cole supports rape and underage drinking.”
Molly Hart, the student in question, said she did speak to Belinkie’s friend that night but not about the election.
“Nothing like the alleged conversations ever occurred,” Hart said. “I was never asked to spread a ‘smear campaign’ on behalf of anyone in Lande’s campaign and never participated in any such actions.”
Feinman said they remained neutral toward presidential candidates and made it clear through emails and statements that they would be willing to provide feedback on all candidates’ platforms and did not favor one candidate.
Feinman said they encouraged Hart to get involved in campaigning in a casual conversation a few weeks ago, but that they did not discuss any specific campaign.
“All allegations made against me are false,” Feinman said. “I am deeply hurt that a member of my cabinet has spread rumors.”
Complaints against Watson’s campaign
The remaining accusations in the complaints were directed toward members of Watson’s campaign, alleging that team leaders tasked members with conducting opposition research and harassing Ettingoff’s supporters.
Rayhaan Merani, former SA senate chief of staff and current campaign manager for Watson, said repeatedly that no member of the campaign team was asked to run opposition research or a smear campaign.
“Every single one of those claims was either completely false and a lie or a very, very distorted version of the truth,” he said. “We have always told everyone and all of our supporters to be as positive about the campaign as possible, don’t share anything negative about any other candidate, don’t be focused on others.”
In Ettingoff’s complaint, he claimed that after Merani called him past midnight multiple times, he met with Merani, Josh Kirmsse – a member of Watson’s campaign team – and Amber Singh, a friend of Watson’s, in the Marvin Center Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. Ettingoff said his girlfriend, Belinkie, was accused of creating a fake, derogatory Twitter account with the handle @LandeforGW during that meeting.
Merani confirmed that the meeting took place and all were present, but said he called Ettingoff once to set up a time and the meeting was a roughly 20-minute-long conversation in which both Kirmsse and Singh spoke “evenly.” He said they did ask him about the Twitter account but that they agreed the conversation would remain between them.
“We told him in very certain terms it would be private,” he said. “We did not try to coerce him out of the race.”
Ettingoff alleged in the complaint that when he tried to leave the meeting, Singh “immediately started yelling” that she would make public unfounded accusations of racism, sexism, assault and homophobia about Ettingoff if he entered the presidential race.
Singh said that although she is Watson’s friend, she played no formal role in her campaign and that she did not threaten Ettingoff “at any point” during the meeting.
“As the vice president of two advocacy student organizations and a survivor of sexual violence myself, I know what harassment is and I would never, and have never, engaged in harassing behavior,” she said. “I knew that Cole was upset that I had supported Lande, but I had no idea he would go so far as to falsely accuse me of harassment.”
Ettingoff alleged in his complaint that the Twitter account defaming Watson was actually created by Kirmsse, not Belinkie, because Kirmsse was able to control the account in less than 30 days. According to Twitter policy, to reactivate a handle in 30 days means the owner of the account has not changed. But @LandeforGW currently has a timestamp of Feb. 27, meaning Kirmsse – who now controls the account – could not have owned the handle when it was defaming Watson in early February, he said.
“My actions weren’t just inaccurately represented – they were completely fabricated,” Kirmsse said. “I claimed the handle to ensure no one could harass Lande on that handle again.”
Belinkie’s complaints also include allegations of Watson’s campaign team members drunkenly calling her a bully and that Singh – a friend of Belinkie’s roommate – purposefully made her feel “uncomfortable” in her home.
Singh confirmed that she was in Belinkie’s South Hall room at the time in question but that she said nothing that would make Ettingoff or Belinkie uncomfortable.
Belinkie said in the complaint that she also left her phone in the room to record the conversation at the advice of a lawyer. Singh said she was concerned that the conversation was recorded without her consent.
D.C. law allows for only one party to give consent to recording a conversation, including the recorder, but Belinkie wasn’t in the room while she let the phone record, according to the complaint.
Singh said she and her friends were talking about College Democrats and she had made a joke about Watson and Kirmsse being a power couple – which Belinkie brings up in her statement – but that “was pretty much the extent of that conversation.” Watson and Kirmsse are dating.
“I have the right to speak to my friends freely and did not say a single word about Ali or Cole when they were in the room or when they left,” she said.
Belinkie said in another complaint that two male students working on Watson’s campaign were following her around campus and to RHA meetings, which made her feel unsafe. She said she overheard a RHA member say that the boys were doing “recon” on her.
Merani, Watson’s campaign manager, said this complaint was false and that no students were ever told to do “recon” or stalk Belinkie.
He said one of students in the complaint is a freshman who helped Watson with her digital strategy and had never met Belinkie “in his life.” He said the other accused student had attended two public RHA meetings when Watson was seeking the group’s endorsement, Merani said.
Belinkie also alleges in a complaint that two SA senators, Imani Ross and Keiko Tsuboi, who is identified as “Alyssa Keiko” in the complaints, intended to run for SA president but were convinced by Watson’s team to drop out before filing and were offered future positions in return.
Tsuboi said in an email that Belinkie submitted this complaint without speaking to her or her campaign manager. Tsuboi decided not to run because she had several other commitments and did not have the time for a presidential campaign, she said.
“I was never forced out of the race by Lande or her surrogates,” she said. “I decided against running due to lack of time, energy and preparation.”
Watson said she didn’t talk to Tsuboi until after Tsuboi decided not to run and didn’t formally meet Ross for the first time until Feb. 18, when Ross had already decided she would not run. Ross contacted Watson to see whether or her points could be incorporated into Watson’s platform, according to Facebook messages between Watson and Ross obtained by The Hatchet.
Ross did not return multiple requests for comment.
Watson added that she did not offer any positions to the two women in exchange for dropping out, and could not have because Ross is running for a senator position.
“I did not pressure anyone not to run for SA president. I think as many people who feel like they are qualified and would do a good job should run for the position,” Watson said.
Cort Carlson, Andrew Goudsward, Lillianna Byington, Justine Coleman and Avery Anapol contributed to reporting.
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Belinkie is Ettingoff’s campaign manager. She is not. The Hatchet also incorrectly stated the kind of messages between Watson and Ross. They were Facebook messages, not text messages. This post has also been updated to explicitly clarify the relationship between Kirmsse and Watson. We regret these errors.