Despite two rounds of voting, the name of the next USF student body president is still not certain as students await the appeals process for grievances filed during the student body elections.
Though Jean Cocco received 52 percent of the 3,651 run-off election votes and 48 percent of the 4,928 votes in the general election, the Election Rules Commission (ERC) named Brandi Arnold student body president elect after they ruled Cocco had four minor violations during his campaign.
Cocco said he is appealing the ERC rulings to the Student Government (SG) Supreme Court, the first hearing of which is on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
“We have been given a mandate by the student body twice,” Cocco said. “We will fight it to the end so the student voice is heard.”
Until the Supreme Court decides to either maintain or overrule the ERC’s ruling, Arnold said she plans to continue serving students.
“We want to make sure we’re holding people accountable, because it’s unfair it you don’t,” she said. “We are so happy and so excited to move forward and serve the student body.”
While the ERC ruled Arnold’s campaign has only one minor violation for failing to include a link to SG’s voting website on a Facebook picture posted by Arnold’s vice president Shaheen Nouri, Cocco’s campaign was found in violation four times.
One of Cocco’s violations was also failing to include a link to the SG website on his campaign website. Another violation was what the ERC considered to be the use of Activity and Service (A&S) fee-funded materials to purchase business cards for his campaign.
Cocco, whose campaign purchased business cards for $120 in the printing lab in the Marshall Student Center through the Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity, said this violation was improperly assessed as he disagrees with the ERC interpretation that “free prints are A&S fee-funded privileges for all registered student organizations, even non-A&S funded organizations.”
Cocco said the fraternity is not A&S funded and therefore if student fees were used by his campaign it was through the printing lab’s violation of violation of SG statutes in Title VIII.
On March 4, the last day of voting in the run-off election, the ERC ruled two more violations were made by the Cocco campaign – one regarding the use of a celebrity on campaign materials and the other about illegal passive campaigning.
The celebrity, which ERC rules of procedure vaguely outline as a figure such as “Rocky or President Genshaft or any NCAA Division I athlete,” was former Gov. Charlie Crist, who came to campus during the general election to support Cocco’s campaign. Cocco used photos of the former Florida governor on social media to encourage students to attend Crist’s event.
The ERC found Cocco’s campaign guilty of passive campaigning as well, when a campaign member, Joana Rabassa, wore a campaign shirt while using the SG printing lab.
Cocco said he felt the hearings and resulting rulings for the violations were unfair and that he perceived bias against his campaign from the ERC, stating he wasn’t told the proper rules of campaigning upfront and had to submit public record requests for information pertaining to campaign rules.
He said he felt he was being held “guilty until proven innocent” in what he called a “witch hunt.”
Two other grievances regarding campaign materials on social media that were lacking SG links were found in violation by the ERC. The ERC also determined “that since campaign documents and materials are a difficult work in progress, the campaign should have 5 business days from the release of the last official opinion regarding the lack of a URL on Campaign documents for the Cocco/Whyte campaign to amend the documents” and thus did not assess violation points against him.
Though these grievances were not assessed violations by the ERC, Cocco said this is “not fair” since he was not given a five-day reprieve when the ERC found him guilty of not having a working link on his campaign website.
While Cocco deleted the campaign materials in question on the last day of the run-off, he was notified of the five-days to fix the problem only when the ERC released its opinion just a day before the deadline to remove the materials.
Additional questions remain as the ERC issued official opinions in the form of assessing “points,” rather than simply stating whether a violation occurred or not.
Current SG statutes and rules of procedure state that a candidate can only be disqualified if found to have committed three minor violations or one major violation by the ERC.
The system of assessing points during elections for campaign violations is something that has not been used in several years. According to Gary Manka, director of SG Advising, Training and Operations, Title VII, the SG statutes that outline election rules, is revised every year to show changes in the election process.
While the term “points” or any other mention of a point system does not appear in the current version of Title VII or the ERC Rules of Procedure, it is outlined in the 2008 version of Title VII. This version of statutes allows the ERC to assess points to candidates for a range of reasons, and candidates would be disqualified if they accumulated 10 or more points.
On the last five documents for official ERC opinions, “points assessed” appears on the documents above the signature of the head of the ERC, Sayf Hassouneh. One point was assessed for each the Arnold grievance about Nouri’s Facebook picture, the grievance about Rabassa’s passive campaigning for Cocco and the grievance regarding Crist.
While the Supreme Court will begin hearing Cocco’s case that the ERC improperly assessed points to his campaign, a legal opinion recently issued by the SG Office of the Attorney General, stated that selection process for the next student body president could continue longer if the Supreme Court does not come to a decision by the end of April.
The legal opinion states that, should the election and appeal process to the Supreme Court “fail to produce a president and vice president within ten business days before the Spring Commencement,” then a Selection of Last Resort shall occur, even if there is pending litigation or dispute.” Spring Commencement is May 2.
The final selection will come from the SG Senate, who will select from the certified pool of campaign tickets. This selection will later be subject to a vote of confidence by the student body in the fall mid-term election. Should the selected president and vice-president not receive enough votes, than a special election will be held four weeks after the mid-term election.