Departed SA cabinet members keep quiet on exits as controversy around Brookins mounts

Media Credit: File Photo by Grace Hromin | Assistant Photo Editor

Over the weekend, SA President Howard Brookins has been called on to resign amid claims of sexual misconduct from a female student and allegations of creating a "negligent and careless" work environment.

Updated: Jan. 25, 2021 at 6:36 p.m.

Since early December, more than a dozen Student Association cabinet members have resigned their posts, some of whom at the time of their departure claimed SA President Howard Brookins created a “negligent and careless work environment.”

Then, less than a week after the most recent flurry of departures, a female student came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Brookins.

Now, dozens of student leaders – including the majority of the SA Senate – are pressing Brookins to resign. Brookins did not return a request for comment about the sexual misconduct allegations or the calls for his resignation by the time of publication.

Most cabinet members who left have kept mum about what transpired in the organization prior to their departures, and when sexual misconduct claims emerged, they did not return requests about whether they knew about the allegations at the time of their resignation. One now-former cabinet member, alumnus Gaurav Gawankar, declined to say why he resigned “due to threats of legal action” from Brookins.

Current and former SA leaders said that if Brookins does not resign on his own accord, the organization could possibly initiate impeachment or censure proceedings, adding that the SA must be a space for women to feel comfortable working.

Departed SA members stay silent 
As of Jan. 16, 14 SA cabinet members have left the organization. Gawankar, who served as Brookins’ chief of staff before graduating last semester, said he resigned Dec. 8. Former Senior Policy Adviser Nicole Cennamo said she stepped down Dec. 28, but she declined to say why.

Former Chief of Staff Shealyn Fraser said she left Jan. 16 because of “poor communication” within the SA. She said as other cabinet members were resigning, “it became clear that the positive work environment had rapidly declined.” Fraser said she stepped down before sexual misconduct allegations surfaced, but she had heard “rumors” of the claims, which in part led to her departure.

“I personally believe Howard should resign at this point if we want to gain upward traction again in advocating for students,” she said last week in response to how the SA should respond to the cabinet resignations.

Six departed cabinet members – Senior Policy Adviser Amy Martin, Director of Interfaith Engagement Julia Kerrigan, Director of Student Advocacy Arzina Lakhani, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Hannah Edwards, Director of the Arts Hannah Clayton and Deputy Chief of Staff Bairavi Sundaram – did not return requests to say when they left the SA or why they resigned. The former members left sometime between Nov. 28 and Jan. 16, according to Internet archives.

Former Vice President for Academic Affairs Liz Gonzalez, Director of Graphic Design and Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs Cat Oriel and Vice President for Campus Operations Anna Weber resigned Jan. 16, claiming mismanagement in the executive branch. The trio declined to say whether they knew about the sexual misconduct allegations when they resigned.

In a resignation letter Dec. 28, then-Vice President for Government Relations Yannik Omictin said he was leaving the SA because of “irreconcilable personal differences.” Omictin declined to say whether he was aware of sexual misconduct claims at the time he left the SA.

“The best members of the Student Association have been those who treat their responsibilities to help students as privileges, do not confer upon themselves an inflated sense of power and hold themselves deeply accountable for their actions,” he wrote in his letter. “I will not tolerate those who do not do so, nor those who treat their tenure in the SA as anything more than a student position, serving among fellow students.”

Three of the remaining members of the branch – George Glass, the vice president for financial affairs; Karina Ochoa Berkley, the vice president for sustainability and a Hatchet opinions writer; and Anna Adler, the director of student engagement – published a joint statement Friday night calling for Brookins to step down. The letter states that the “few” remaining members of the SA could not “stay quiet” knowing the SA has a “credibly accused sexual harasser” in its leadership.

SA members consider impeachment, censure proceedings
SA Executive Vice President Brandon Hill said in an interview Saturday that senators are looking into the possibility of initiating a censure or impeachment trial. He said Monday’s senate meeting will likely determine how the body chooses to act based on whether Brookins attends the meeting and how he takes “accountability” for himself.

Hill said he has not been able to reach Brookins for the past few days.

The SA Senate has the ability to initiate impeachment proceedings – which could result in removing Brookins from office – or censure proceedings – which could result in a formal expression of disapproval and could include other repercussions apart from expelling Brookins from the organization, according to the SA’s constitution and bylaws.

University policy states student organizations cannot take action against an individual for violating GW’s policies. Hill, the executive vice president, said in an earlier interview Saturday that the senate can only impeach a member of the SA if they violate the organization’s bylaws.

“The senate is prepared to make him take accountability, but I don’t know how he can move forward morally without recognizing the hurt he’s caused,” he said.

He said in an interview last week that finding new members to fill the vacancies is a top priority. There are currently three applications out for the first three positions that became vacant, which will “hopefully” be filled at Monday’s meeting, he added.

The confirmation process for students applying to vacant positions will follow all standard protocols, Hill said. Vice presidential appointments and new members must be confirmed by the full senate, he said.

“The senate is still going to treat them like any other member seeking confirmation, if not harder, knowing that they’ll have to work twice as hard to learn more about the Student Association, the operations of the University and support students throughout the remainder of the term,” Hill said.

Drew Amstutz, the former vice president of undergraduate student policy who resigned Jan. 16, said he ultimately decided to leave the SA earlier this month when he was told about the sexual misconduct claims the female student described in her tweets Friday.

“That, combined with the ineffectiveness of the cabinet, I decided it was in the best interest for me to remove my support from Howard, try to stay in the Student Association in some form, but to get out from under Howard,” he said.

Amstutz said the SA must focus on “healing,” and Brookins either needs to resign or be impeached. He added that the SA should ensure a woman serves in at least one of the body’s top three positions – either as president, executive vice president or senate pro tempore.

“At the end of the day, if we can’t get our internal struggles rectified, we’re not going to be able to advocate on behalf of the entire student body when it comes to these issues,” Amstutz said. “And these are systemic issues at GW that need to be corrected.”

Tiffany Garcia and Zach Schonfeld contributed reporting.

Editor’s note: This post was updated to include additional information from Shealyn Fraser.

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