In a five-hour hearing held on May 15th, 2014, representatives for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) argued that two members of the Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC) had a conflict of interest when they voted on the question of divestment from US companies that profit from the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights. SJP premised its arguments on the fact that both council members enjoyed in-kind benefits including travel, accommodation, meals, and professional networking opportunities provided by pro-Israel lobbying groups. The council members, Sunny Singh and Lauren Rogers, took free trips to Israel under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), respectively, while they held elected offices in the undergraduate student government. SJP alleged to the Judicial Board that the financial value of the trips (estimated to be between $5,000 and $7,000) created a perceived loyalty or obligation to the organizations, which are on record as openly opposing divestment resolutions on college campuses and working with campus groups to defeat them.
During the trial, SJP provided evidence that the ADL expected participants to “apply what they learned” on the trips through their student leadership positions, and provided a copy of an email message sent by the AJC to Rogers asking her to vote against the divestment resolution. SJP argued that a reasonable observer looking at these facts would believe that the council members' votes may have been influenced by these expectations and communications, and that this "reasonable observer" threshold was sufficient to trigger the conflict of interest clauses in the student government's bylaws. SJP also clarified that council members should be free to associate with whomever they please, and even to take trips, but that when these associations come with financial or in-kind benefits, extra scrutiny must be applied—especially when explicitly voting on a related issue. SJP asserts that the conflict of interest clause is in place precisely because these matters should not be left to the sole judgement of the council members. After all, that is what the concept of checks and balances is all about.
SJP rejects Singh and Rogers’ arguments that the case is a political smear campaign. Both defendants argued that the fact that Singh applied for the trip prior to being elected invalidated the claim, that a prior discussion of conflicts of interest in the student government effectively cleared them to participate in future votes, and that the perception of a conflict of interest showed a lack of faith in the council members' ethical judgment.
Members of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) were present as witnesses for the respondents. Amanda Susskind, ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director, testified that her organization's Campus Leaders Mission to Israel never mentioned BDS or divestment and that the organization did not favor student government members in its selection process. Robert Peckar, outgoing executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Project Interchange, also argued that Rogers' position in student government was not the primary reason she was accepted to the California Student Leaders delegation, but acknowledged that the trip had significant financial value. Such claims fly in the face of the fact that these organizations publicly oppose divestment and specifically recruit student leaders.
Although some interpret the bylaws as designed to prevent USAC officers from taking actions that could produce a financial benefit for them in the future, SJP asked the court to consider the possibility that a council member’s vote might be based on a benefit they have already received. SJP stressed that if the actions taken by Singh and Rogers were declared acceptable, then other organizations would also be free to provide financial and/or in-kind gifts to council members prior to their votes on important public issues.
As of this writing, there is no clear timeline for the issuance of a verdict and full opinion, however Judicial Board rules stipulate that no later than two weeks after the verdict, the board will issue a full opinion on the matter.
For more information, see reporting by The Daily Bruin: http://dailybruin.com/2014/05/16/judicial-board-hears-arguments-on-potential-usac-conflict/