UA president says that confusion led to controversial Lil B payment

UA president says that confusion led to controversial Lil B payment

UPDATE TO THIS ARTICLE: On April 6, Shruti Sharma retracted a statement in this article. Sharma originally said: “I wanted to do something that would make it easier and the way it was presented was almost like SAO [Student Activities Office] also wanted me to sign this … it seemed like I needed to sign it that day.” In an email to The Tech, Sharma clarified her position: “It was not the SAO pressuring me directly as conversations with Leah [Flynn] only started after the fact. Instead, it was presented from the student that the contract had been signed already and as a result, funding had to be delivered so BSU [Black Students’ Union] would not go into debt. As the UA’s responsibility is to help students and especially to support groups, it seemed to me that the UA needed to step in to help.”

The Undergraduate Association Judicial Board issued a decision last week which found that UA President Shruti Sharma ’15 had authorized a “constitutionally inappropriate” transaction when she transferred an unbudgeted $12,500 to fund Lil B’s November visit to MIT.

The rapper had given a 90-minute talk to a packed audience in 32-123, sharing his thoughts on everything from racism to photosynthesis.

Sharma said she was under time pressure to authorize the funds amid confusion over whether MIT was already under contract to pay Lil B.

“I do apologize for signing off,” she said. “It was a murky situation. I think we’ve all really learned from it.” She said she agreed with the Judicial Board’s recommendations for more reviews and better recordkeeping.

Judicial Board chairman John W. Halloran ’15 emailed the ruling to councillors on March 24 after treasurer Ryan A. McDermott ’15 had discussed the expenditure with Council as an emergency item at a March 18 meeting. Several councillors at the meeting had requested a constitutional ruling from the Judicial Board, and a straw poll indicated that Council was not comfortable adding a line item to cover the expense until checks on similar behavior were implemented. Councillors seemed especially upset that they weren’t informed earlier.

It was confusion that prevented Sharma bringing the issue before Council, she told The Tech in an interview; she said that she wanted to get a better understanding of the facts before getting Council involved. She said she was working on the fact-gathering process with the UA’s advisor and director of the Student Activities Office, Leah Flynn.

“Leah and I were working on this, and honestly, that is what was taking the longest was that we were working on it together.”

McDermott said at the meeting that Sharma had signed off on the expense herself and that there had been no communication between himself and Sharma. He said in an email to The Tech that he did not know that the UA had funded rapper Lil B’s lecture until he ran a transaction report on the UA’s umbrella account in January.

Sharma had authorized the expenditure after a student falsely claiming to be a member of the Black Student Union (BSU) requested the funds from the UA. The student, in fact, had only signed up with the BSU at an activities midway.

Sharma was mostly quiet during Council’s discussion, but she did refer to the “time sensitivity” of the transaction and said “it was to be brought to council, but … we decided to go with our discretionary budget.”

In an interview with The Tech, she said that she was using her constitutional authority as a financial signatory to distribute funds in an emergency after being told that MIT was already under contract to pay Lil B, who could have sued if he wasn’t paid.

“I was trying to be helpful,” Sharma said. “I wanted to do something that would make it easier and the way it was presented was almost like SAO also wanted me to sign this … it seemed like I needed to sign it that day.”

[Editor’s note: Sharma has since retracted this statement. See update above.]

Since there is no written record of the date Sharma signed the authorization, the Judicial Board’s decision said that it could not be determined whether MIT was already under contract with Lil B at the time. Sharma said in an interview, however, that MIT was in fact under the contract at the time.

The Judicial Board found that the $12,500 expenditure exceeded the amount allocated to the Officer’s Discretionary Fund ($5,000 under the fall 2014 budget) and was thus “constitutionally inappropriate ... regardless of [Sharma’s] financial signatory status or a need for executive expediency.”

Though the Board acknowledged that there were “extenuating circumstances” surrounding the authorization, it said that the Constitution only permits UA officers to “act in lieu of Council” under certain conditions; in particular, decisions must be reached with “a majority of all officers voting in favor” and must be “subject to subsequent review by the Council at its next meeting.”

“First of all, it is unclear if the rest of the Officers were notified of the transfer,” the Judicial Board wrote in its decision. “Secondly ... the President should have notified the Council at the next meeting.”

“The President has a duty to ‘make a good faith effort to keep the Council informed of all pertinent matters,’” the Judicial Board wrote, citing the UA Constitution and writing that “a non-budgeted $12,500 expense should certainly be considered pertinent.”

“This failure to notify Council sooner was not in compliance with the listed duties of the UA President in the Constitution.”

Sharma describes the entire incident as a learning experience.

“I think we’ve all taken responsibility for it,” she said. “The BSU has taken responsibility for it. The SAO now has new regulations on how you get financial transactions and contracts signed. Give more checks and balances on the SAO side, too. And now the UA will have more checks and balances.”

Sharma was referring to the recommendations issued by the Judicial Board in its decision. The Judicial Board called for a monthly review of UA accounts by the UA principal officers as well as records of votes on large financial transactions. The board also suggested considering changes to the UA’s constitution or bylaws to “prevent similar events from occurring in the future.”

According to the UA’s website, about a third of its funds are derived from a portion of the MIT student-life fee collected along with tuition from all MIT students, while most of the remaining two-thirds come out of the General Institute Budget.