Updated: April 3, 2017 at 8:49 p.m.
The Joint Elections Committee disqualified Student Association presidential candidate Lande Watson from the upcoming elections Saturday, amid allegations that members of her campaign harassed, stalked and intimidated another presidential candidate and his supporters.
The JEC – the student body that oversees the election process – found Watson guilty on four of 11 possible charges, totaling six violation points, enough to force her out of the presidential race. Watson was found in violation of election rules by making threatening and intimidating statements, making false statements and having campaign agents engage in harassment.
Watson and her supporters were cleared of harassment accusations in the Residence Hall Association office, at an off-campus nightclub, in a residence hall room and a Thurston Hall elevator. She was also found not in violation of spreading a “smear campaign” and forcing other candidates not to run.
JEC Chair Alex Simone said the full findings of the investigation would be released within 72 hours.
This decision means only two presidential candidates will be on the ballot April 5 and 6 – junior Cole Ettingoff and sophomore Adam Johnson.
Watson was not present when the JEC announced its decision Saturday afternoon. Members of her campaign team at the announcement declined to give a statement.
Ettingoff, and his girlfriend, outgoing Residence Hall Association President Ali Belinkie, filed complaints against Watson after they said they faced weeks of bullying and intimidation surrounding the election.
In a statement posted to his campaign’s Facebook page, Ettingoff said he was warned that there are often incidents similar to the ones he reported during SA campaigns, but that he wouldn’t accept that behavior.
“Bullshit like that makes students feel like GW isn’t their home and that isn’t okay,” he said.
Ettingoff said he was “sad to to see so many students were harmed in the process of this election.” He said he was working with administrators to reform how student elections, campaigns and hearings are conducted on campus.
“Now comes the hard part: repairing our community and making sure that it is never again normal for students to bully each other over a student body election or anything else,” he said.
He said he reported the incidents to the Center for Student Engagement and the University Police Department and hoped they would be able to end the bullying on campus before it became a “public spectacle.”
“I saw students afraid to report bad behavior in the past and that allowed bad behavior to continue and escalate,” he said. “We need to remember that this is just a student body election and no student should never feel like I have the past few months.”
Hannah Bloom, the chief investigator in the case, said the accusations made against Watson represent an ongoing issue of harassment and intimidation in SA elections.
“There is a culture that goes on in SA elections,” she said, addressing the JEC members at the hearing. “I want you guys to consider the history of these elections.”
Belinkie said in an email that she hoped the JEC’s decision would send the “message that bullying, lies and harassment are unacceptable.”
She said students who heard rumors or were targeted during the campaign should go to the University Police Department.
During the hearing, Belinkie said multiple times that the SA election environment has been “horrible” every year, and that addressing the climate of bullying is the responsibility of the JEC.
“I regret telling Cole to run because you guys have really made this a living hell,” she told the JEC.
When the JEC announced the postponement of the election Tuesday, the group published versions of the complaints that included the names of the accused students, including Watson campaign team members and supporters, and Belinkie and Ettingoff’s emails and phone numbers. The original complaints were redacted after allegations of harassment toward the named students were reported, and at least one student included in the reports was misidentified.
Watson said in an email that when she heard about the decision, she was upset at the “failing of justice,” and checked on those accused in the violations.
“We’re tired and frustrated that our names and the names of our friends have been dragged through the mud,” she said. “The JEC clearly did not follow their charter, nor did they follow any reasonable standard of evidence, and we are still exploring all of our options.”
Watson was endorsed by almost 30 student organizations, while her competitors Cole Ettingoff and Adam Johnson have received three and zero endorsements, respectively.
The last time a presidential candidate was removed from the elections was in 2013, when the JEC disqualified Kwasi Agyeman after the group’s chief investigator found that Agyeman didn’t fit the qualifications to be on the ballot. Agyeman was taking master’s classes but hadn’t been accepted into a GW program for the following fall.
The JEC read its verdict following an eight-hour deliberation. The discussion came after a 10-hour hearing beginning Friday evening, in which representatives from both sides and JEC members grilled witnesses to determine if the claims made by Ettingoff and Belinkie made were valid.
Twelve witnesses appeared at the hearing that started Friday evening and lasted well into Saturday morning, either through phone or in person, in an attempt to corroborate or refute charges made in the six complaints the JEC was investigating. The JEC delayed SA elections by a week so members of the group could investigate the claims.
Josh Kirmsse, Watson’s campaign manager, boyfriend and representative at the hearing, hammered away at the claims made in the complaints, repeatedly arguing that there was no concrete evidence to substantiate them.
“We’re still exploring all of our options, but it’s hard to imagine that we would do nothing to defend ourselves against attacks on our character,” he said in an email.
Kirmsse said that preparing for the hearing was difficult because of how “disorganized” the JEC was. He said the group changed what charges would be investigated until 12:30 a.m. Thursday and he wasn’t given the evidence until 11 a.m. Friday, the day of the hearing. He said he was given six hours before the hearing to gather witness statements and evidence.
Simone, the JEC chair, confirmed that Watson’s charges were updated, but said in an email that it was because of a “clerical error” mixing up what parts of the charter were violated.
She said the original complaints were published in accordance with the JEC charter, immediately after they were deemed probable enough for a violation hearing to take place.
“The following morning, in response to concerns regarding privacy and in consultation with Center for Student Engagement staff, we unpublished the complaints, redacted sensitive information and reposted them,” she said.
She added that the Watson team was given from their indictment on Tuesday until the hearing to prepare their case and that the chief investigator talked to them multiple times prior to the hearing to provide updates on information.
SA presidential candidate Adam Johnson, who is not implicated in the allegations, said Watson’s disqualification from the race should not impact the elections because students should be voting on “who has the best platform.”
“I am glad the JEC took the allegations seriously because they were serious,” he said.
Charges against Watson
Testifying before the JEC, Ettingoff said his involvement in the race caused near continuous harassment on campus for both Belinkie and himself.
“I felt intimidated to run for the SA election and to be in this org at all,” he said. “I felt intimidated to be active on campus. I felt intimidated to be a student at GW.”
Ettingoff testified that he felt threatened after a private meeting in the Marvin Center with three supporters of the Watson campaign, in which Kirmsse allegedly suggested that Belinkie had created a derogatory Twitter account targeting Watson. Two of the supporters there were also authorized agents of the campaign.
Ettingoff said that during the meeting, Amber Singh, a Watson supporter and the vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault, yelled and accused him of being sexist and racist. He also alleged that she threatened to issue a statement on behalf of SASA to tarnish his reputation.
Ettingoff’s campaign manager, Russell Bowman, was present at the meeting and corroborated these claims, writing in a statement submitted to the JEC that Singh told the two that “men need to see what you do to women.”
Among other charges, Ettingoff and Belinkie testified that members of Watson’s campaign team stalked them.
He recalled one instance with Belinkie when the couple saw Levi Debose, Watson’s deputy campaign manager, in Rome Hall. After crossing H Street, Ettingoff said he saw Debose behind them, hiding behind a concrete pillar.
“No one ever wants to think they’re being followed,” he said. “It became more common than I could ignore.”
Ettingoff acknowledged that some claims were difficult to prove but said the number of incidents showed that he felt unsafe during the campaign.
“It’s rumors like ‘I heard so-and-so say whatever’ – things I can’t take screenshots of, things I can’t take a recording of,” he said.
During Ettingoff’s testimony, Bloom, the chief investigator in the case, presented text messages between Karl Pederson, an Ettingoff supporter, and an anonymous supporter of the Watson campaign.
The student said he was aware of Watson’s campaign conducting opposition research but told Pederson he was afraid to speak out because he didn’t know “what Lande and Josh will do to [him].” Ettingoff said multiple times that this student, like many others he had asked to testify, was uncomfortable and feared retaliation from Watson’s campaign team.
In a statement for the defense, the same student said his conversation with Pederson was “distorted” and that he had felt pressured to testify from the Ettingoff campaign.
In a two-and-a-half-hour testimony, Belinkie, who submitted all but one of the complaints being investigated against Watson, said after administrators learned about a UPD investigation into harassment claims against her and Ettingoff, Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller asked her to file reports with the JEC.
Belinkie testified that two male students associated with the Watson campaign were following her around campus. She said she saw them between 12 and 15 times on campus in the weeks before and after spring break.
Both sides agreed that one of the students named in the stalking complaint was misidentified.
“I don’t want to ruin anyone’s life and I felt really bad about naming them, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel unsafe,” Belinkie said.
Sen. Keiko Tsuboi, ESIA-U, who explored launching an SA presidential campaign, testified that she had heard rumors from people she trusted that members of Watson’s campaign were conducting opposition research against her and had found her campaign website before it was publicized.
“It was kind of a running joke on our team,” she said. “To us, it was believable.”
Tsuboi echoed a previous statement she made to The Hatchet that no one from Watson’s team had pressured her not to run for SA president.
During her defense, Watson allies and other students named in the complaints said the allegations were either completely false or distorted versions of true events.
Singh, the vice president of SASA, said she never threatened to use her position in SASA to discredit Ettingoff and denied calling him racist, sexist and homophobic.
“I have experienced sexism, racism and sexual assault,” she said. “I don’t throw those words around.”
Singh said she made it clear to Ettingoff at the Feb. 21 meeting Ettingoff referenced during his testimony and complaint that she was “shocked” to see evidence from Kirmsse that Belinkie had created the derogatory Twitter account, but that she never yelled at Ettingoff.
SA president Erika Feinman testified that they remained neutral throughout the campaign and all allegations made against them about directing a member of their sorority to spread false rumors about Ettingoff were “completely false.”
Debose testified that he attended two public RHA meetings, both of which pertained to the SA elections, and that he had also seen Ettingoff and Belinkie in passing at the SA debate and once in District House. He denied all charges and said he had not been notified of an ongoing investigation from UPD.
“At 12:15 on a Friday, I’m here trying to defend myself against stalking allegations for attending three public meetings,” he said. “I have never talked to Ali Belinkie. I don’t know her.”
At the end of the hearing, Kirmsse called himself as the final witness and denied all allegations of harassment.
Kirmsse said the meeting in the Marvin Center was never intended to be intimidating, and that he only wanted to confront Ettingoff about the Twitter account, which he said was linked to Belinkie’s phone number.
“There’s nothing great to do in that situation, because it’s such a shitty conversation,” he said. “The best thing that we could think to do was talk to Cole about it.”
Kirmsse said he did not want to involve Belinkie in the conversation because he was not friendly with her and thought that conversation may appear intimidating. He also said he invited Singh to the conversation because of her prior experience in dealing with allegations of harassment as vice president of SASA.
In his closing statement, Kirmsse said that although Ettingoff and Belinkie may have felt intimidated, “it’s also intimidating to be accused.” He asked the JEC to consider the burden of proof upon the chief of investigation.