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Friday, March 31, 2023

Student Government

Commission, appellants make cases at hearings

The Student Government Association Court of Appeals has until 1 a.m. Wednesday to decide whether or not to uphold the SGA Election Commission’s disqualification of four members of the McHugh-Aijaz party.

President-Elect Michael McHugh and Vice President-Elect Mohammed Aijaz, along with two of their party members, Brandon Balwant and Laxmi Ramana, were disqualified after the Commission decided they had committed election fraud by using students’ PeopleSoft numbers, birthdays and names to vote for McHugh and Aijaz without the students’ knowledge.

The hearings lasted from 8 p.m. Monday to 12:45 a.m. today and were originally held in the large conference room in the University Center Underground but were moved to the Atlantic Room to accommodate the large amount of attendees.

Balwant and Ramana were the appellants in the first hearing, which was immediately followed by one for Michael and Aijaz. All four were represented by Michael’s brother Cameron McHugh and Houston attorney and former Houston City Council Member Jolanda Jones.

Though Chief Justice Taylor Kilroy said students had to represent themselves, Jones argued with the court until the Commission allowed her to advise Cameron while he represented his brother and the other appellants.

“Actually, because I’m just worried about time… (Cameron McHugh), you may represent the (appellants), just to be sure we can get a move on,” Kilroy said.

Jones agreed to limit her involvement to whispering advice in her client’s ear, although she later stood and addressed the court directly several times, until Associate Justice Raul Lopez threatened to excuse her from the court.

“I’d really like this to remain professional, and I don’t think we’re going to have a professional hearing with her in here,” Kilroy said.

The candidates denied all charges, centering their appeal on procedural errors they said were made by the Commission. The Commission based its arguments largely on two affidavits and a testimony by James Lee, who ran for a College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences senatorial seat with the McHugh-Aijaz party.

Lee told the court he had received a phone call from Michael on the last night of the run-off elections in which Michael asked him to commit voter fraud.

“Mr. McHugh (Michael) said ‘we’re entering in PeopleSofts, are you in?’” Lee said.

Lee said he agreed and was sent seven PeopleSoft numbers from Balwant at around 11:45 p.m. He said he used two of them to place votes for Michael and Aijaz.

Lee also said he received incriminating Facebook messages from Balwant, but he deleted them because they made him feel guilty.

“I just fell into this depression — just immediately,” Lee said. “I didn’t want to see it.”

Michael denied the allegations and said Lee was making them because he was bitter over rejected romantic advances Lee allegedly made towards Michael. Lee denied making any advances towards the appellate.

“In the past, when Michael has become upset with other people, he likes to point out that these people don’t like him because they asked him out on a date,” Lee said.

Michael also said he was concerned The Daily Cougar’s Editor in Chief, Daniel Renfrow, was blackmailing Lee, as the two had previously been in a romantic relationship.

“I was afraid that Daniel was out for blood. One thing James said he did do, he said ‘stay away from Daniel, he’s going to try and get to you. But he’s out for blood, he will write anything he can about you if it means getting a good story.’”

The Cougar was brought up several times throughout the hearings. News Editor Taylor McGilvray was unexpectedly called to testify about emails forwarded by the Cougar to the Commission and whether the Cougar said there was video evidence of the fraud.

McGilvray said the Cougar did not print any articles saying that.

The only references in the Cougar to video footage in relation to the fraud were made on March 6 and March 8. On March 6 the Cougar reported that there was no camera evidence available. On March 8 the Cougar reported that Kilroy had said the committee was reviewing tapes in an attempt to identify a student who passed out petitions in front of the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library. This was not mentioned in the hearing.

The appellants contested their disqualification, saying the Commission had filed the disqualification past the deadline for complaints.

“We believe that these charges brought up against the defendants were both meritless, thoughtless and were in direct violation of the election code,” Cameron said.

The Commission said according to the election code, it did not have to file a complaint, and it has jurisdiction to investigate and deliberate allegations of election fraud.

“We followed the code as closely as we could,” said Assistant Commissioner Said Jalajal.

The appellants also said Chief Election Commissioner Arsalan Razakazi was biased against Michael.

“A lot of people believe that Michael was behind the fact that Arsalan was voted down for finance director,” said Briann Gallien, last year’s Commissioner. “(Razakazi said) the only reason (Michael) wanted to pass Good Samaritan was so he could do drugs with his friends, and the only reason he wanted GENDA passed was because he was gay… I believe that the whole process was completely messed up.”

Razakazi denied making these statements.

The Commission read affidavits written by students Alexandro Jimenez and Amber Khan, who said they were approached by students matching Balwant and Ramana’s description, who took their PeopleSoft numbers, names and birthdays for use in a petition.

Jimenez said he gave false information to the petitioners, but Khan did not, and she said when she tried to vote online, the system had already registered a vote from her.

Cameron objected to the affidavits after being advised by Jones because they were “not in the file that (the appellants) were presented originally.”

Jones later said the defense was being put on “hearing by ambush.”

“That’s why this country was founded because that’s what they did in England, and that’s what the Nazis did,” Jones said.

Kilroy said SGA bylaws do not require the court to volunteer submitted evidence to the defense, and the appellants’ case was not hurt by the inability to cross-examine the witnesses because they had already run out of time within which they could question witnesses.

The only information provided to the defense was the names of the witnesses, and Jones cited rules that the court is required to collect contact information from the witnesses, but Kilroy said the contact information was withheld because of contradictions with FERPA, a federal law.

“As I’m sure you know as well, federal law trumps whatever is in these bylaws,” he said.

Towards the end of the last hearing, Michael reiterated his denial of the allegations.

“Honestly I always viewed this as my race to win from the beginning,” he said. “It’s less likely that I would do anything illegal because having run last year, I have the name recognition, I have the experience. We had alleged voter fraud last year, so I wouldn’t be stupid enough this year to get caught. “

After the hearings ended, Lee gave a statement to the Cougar apologizing for his role in the alleged fraud.

“I just want to say that I’m sorry to all the students. I know I made a mistake,” he said. “It was never my intention to do anything of this nature, but I just got caught up in things. I really want to try to make amends, and I hope that the students can forgive me.”

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Correction: In a previously published version of this article it was reported that the only time the Cougar mentioned video footage in regard to the alleged fraud was on March 6. An additional article ran in the Cougar on March 8 in which Chief Justice Taylor Kilroy said tapes were being reviewed in order to identify a student who passed out petitions in front of the M.D. Anderson Library.

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