Former Watson campaign members demand University apology for handling of election

Media Credit: Hatchet file photo by Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor

Students named in the complaints against the campaign of former SA presidential candidate Lande Watson are demanding a public apology from the University.

Students named in the complaints that disqualified former Student Association presidential candidate Lande Watson are demanding a public apology from the University.

In interviews, six students named in election violation complaints or involved in Watson’s former campaign described a hearing that left them shaken and frustrated. The students said being associated with charges of stalking and harassment could permanently damage their reputations and that they lost trust in officials’ ability to handle the situation, including when witnesses were forced to wait for hours to testify about the charges.

Four members of Watson’s former campaign team met with Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski Friday to formally ask for an apology and discuss how officials can support students involved in the complaints, according to multiple students who attended the meeting.

Earlier this month, the Joint Elections Committee – the student body that oversees SA elections – disqualified Watson from the race after former presidential candidate Cole Ettingoff and Ali Belinkie, his girlfriend and former RHA president, accused several members of Watson’s team of harassment, stalking and intimidation. The JEC found Watson’s campaign guilty on four charges after hours of hearings and deliberations.

Ettingoff and Belinkie did not return multiple requests for comment.

Josh Kirmsse, Watson’s former campaign manager and boyfriend, said Konwerski is responsible for issuing an apology because the hearing process permanently harmed students’ reputations. Kirmsse said the charges were false and some of the accusations, like stalking, could follow students throughout their lives and harm future job opportunities.

Kirmsse said he contacted Konwerski four times before getting a response.

“It’s really not at all about the election anymore,” he said. “The University has a responsibility to clear the names of students who were lied about and smeared on campus.”

Kirmsse said some student affairs officials contributed to the JEC’s decision by allegedly giving advice to Ettingoff. Belinkie testified at the JEC hearing that she had met with at least one administrator prior to the hearing to discuss the charges and file complaints.

“It is hard to feel like administrators are actively fighting against innocent people,” he said.

Three members of Watson’s former campaign team called for the resignation of Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller, who advises the SA and JEC, for his handling of the process.

Konwerski declined to comment on the details of the meeting with members of Watson’s inner circle – citing privacy concerns – but he said he appreciated the opportunity to speak with them.

“I welcomed the meaningful dialogue that we had and I look forward to the conversation continuing should other questions arise for the students I have already met with or any other student who has struggled during the recent student elections at GW,” he said in an email.

Konwerkski said he has meet with multiple students over the last several weeks who were involved in the SA elections.

Watson said she and members of her team were falsely accused and that the JEC made its decision based on little evidence.

“I hope the University and all those involved understand the lasting impact this will have on individuals who were smeared with absolutely zero credible evidence,” she said in an email.

Watson declined to comment on the requests for an apology but said she is focusing on clearing her friends’ names.

Two students who testified in Watson’s defense during the JEC hearing said several witnesses were kept in separate rooms in the Marvin Center as they waited hours for their turn to testify.

SA President Erika Feinman, who was not a member of Watson’s campaign but was named in the complaints, said the process “exacerbated” the anxiety many students were already dealing with after being named in the documents.

“Quite a few students were crying a lot and administrators were aware of that, including Tim Miller,” Feinman said. “We were being treated as if we were guilty and we were there to prove our innocence.”

Feinman said at one point in the evening they and another student threw up, and the two were offered no medical attention “outside of a bottle of ginger ale.” Around 10 p.m. students were given pizza, they said.

Feinman said it wasn’t until one of the students had an “emotional breakdown” that Miller allowed the students to move into the same room. Some comments officials made that night caused students to feel worse about the situation, Feinman said.

“At one point a student said something like ‘we are being held in solitary confinement’ and Tim Miller said ‘consider it more of a timeout,’” they said. “He insinuated we did something wrong and were guilty.”

The Hatchet asked both Konwerski and Miller for comment. Konwerski responded, representing the Division of Student Affairs.

Konwerski said that all students who participated in the hearing attended voluntarily and at no point were they told they couldn’t leave. He said officials made the decision to manage all witnesses in the same manner and decided to have most testify by phone to protect their privacy.

“During the hearing, both sides of counsel and all witnesses were asked several times if anyone needed a recess and at no point did a participant ask for additional time,” he said. “We applaud all students for their dedication to the process.”

Feinman did not attend Friday’s meeting with Konwerski, several students involved in the conversations said.

“I really hope that the University administration does take our concerns seriously and apologizes to all of these students,” Feinman said. “I was definitely appalled at the lack of consideration for students.”

Feinman declined to comment on whether or not they thought Miller should be asked to resign.

Levi DeBose, Watson’s former deputy campaign manager who was accused of stalking Ettingoff and Belinkie, compared the witness’ treatment to “solitary confinement.”

“Do you know what that does to someone’s mental health? Do you know the effect that can have, especially when it’s done for four and a half hours? That is an outrage,” DeBose said.

DeBose said it was inappropriate for the JEC to rule on charges as serious as harassment, intimidation and stalking.

He said administrators should have better guided students through the process and that he wants the University to formally clear the names of all involved.

“I think a formal apology, considering the gravity of the issue, is not only appropriate but also necessary,” he said.

Konwerski declined to say if he will consider the students’ demand for an apology and what his reaction was to demands that Miller resign.

 

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