The Senate Chambers on the fourth floor of the Marshall Student Center is typically used for regular Student Government (SG) and Faculty Senate meetings, but as students gathered there Wednesday evening, many seemed unfamiliar with the room.
More importantly, the students speculated about what exactly would take place at the SG Supreme Court hearing they came to witness.
As the Chief Justice urged decorum from the audience of roughly 50 students, he referred to the security officer standing outside the door to ensure proper conduct.
Ultimately, those in the room gathered to hear the case that could decide who, beyond a reasonable doubt, would become the next student body president.
According to SG statutes, the Supreme Court has until Friday to make a ruling.
The opening statement came from Jean Cocco, who appealed to the court to re-evaluate the violations assessed to his campaign that disqualified him from presidency.
Defending against Cocco was the Election Rules Commission (ERC), represented by SG Attorney General Daniel Christopher. At the beginning of the month, the ERC found Cocco guilty of four campaign violations, which disqualified him from the runoff student body election that he would have otherwise won with 52 percent of the 3,651 votes. Cocco also received the most votes in the general election with 48 percent of the 4,928 votes.
In his opening statements, as well as his arguments throughout the hearing, Cocco said the ERC violated his campaign’s due process, lacked clarity in assessing his grievances, included work with procedural errors and treated his campaign with bias in what he called an adversarial process.
“The definition of beyond a reasonable doubt is clear in statutes, that no logical explanation can be derived from the evidence … clearly the standard was not taken into account as the evidence used by the ERC was precarious at best,” he said.
The violations assessed by the ERC included the use former Gov. Charlie Crist as a celebrity on Cocco’s campaign materials, use Activity and Service (A&S) fees to purchase business cards for his campaign, passive campaigning at a polling station and not including the SG voting link on his campaign website.
The first violation under scrutiny was the use of Crist on campaign materials prior to Crist’s arrival on campus to support Cocco’s campaign. While Cocco said the SG statute defining celebrity was vague, only including USF President Judy Genshaft, Rocky or a NCAA Division I athlete as examples, the judges questioned Cocco as to what he thought the definition of a celebrity is.
The term is in the eye of the beholder, Cocco said, stating a Nobel Prize-wining physicist would only be a celebrity among physicists. Crist, however, is a private citizen who is a friend and mentor, he said.
“Mr. Cocco, we’re an organization of higher education,” Associate Justice Corey McCance asked. “Do you not know the definition of a celebrity?”
As Cocco attempted to argue Crist’s support, Cocco said Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, or any other pop culture icon, were celebrities, but that President Barack Obama was not. While the Chief Justice determined the conversation on definitions was getting off topic, Cocco said he was left wanting clearer definitions from the ERC.
Harsh Patil, who attended the hearing and ran against Cocco as a vice-presidential candidate on another ticket in the general election but didn’t receive enough votes to continue in the runoff, said Cocco seemed to “plead ignorance” at times in the evening.
“If you take the initiative to run for student body president, you should take the initiative to look up how to campaign,” Patil said.
With a similar defense, Cocco said the violation about passive campaigning was improperly assessed because the ERC failed to state the MSC Computer Services lab as a polling station at the campaign information session for candidates.
In addition to saying he was uninformed that this was considered a polling location, Cocco said the evidence presented to the ERC – a photo of a Cocco campaign member wearing a campaign shirt while in the lab – did not clearly show it was a campaign shirt and there was no way to prove when the photo was taken. He said the campaign member was not campaigning when she was in the lab, she just happened to be wearing the shirt while she was printing her homework for class.
In response to Cocco’s claim that the lab was not announced as an official polling station, as well as the judges’ questions as to why no ERC member was staffing the location during voting, Christopher said the ERC included the lab in the official voter’s guide given to candidates, but was “more of an open polling location.”
“It’s not as explicit a polling station as say the Library or Cooper Hall, but it is stated in the candidate packet as a polling location,” Christopher said.
On the other hand, Christopher said the campaign member and her shirt could not be clearly distinguished in the photo provided for evidence, but in collaboration with testimony from a member of the opposing campaign, sufficed enough evidence for the ERC to make their conclusion.
In his argument about the violation of using A&S fees, Cocco said if A&S fees were used to print his campaign materials – which he printed through the Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity’s account – then it was in violation of SG statutes that prohibits Greek organizations from receiving A&S funds and didn’t match what he found in A&S business documents he requested.
Rather, he said, the ERC pursued this complaint like he was their adversary.
The judges seemed to find a problem here when they questioned Daniel about the ERC process, claiming it was a “conflict of interest” if the ERC acted as both the “judge and the prosecutor.”
A fourth violation addressed was Cocco’s failure to include the SG voting link on the campaign website, which Cocco said he did have on his site, just not on the main page.
Under the judges’ questions, Daniel conceded that ERC rules of procedure do not state where on the website the link has to be, as long as it is on the website “somewhere.”
The judges also asked what evidence the ERC used to investigate the violation. To this, Daniel said the ERC members looked at screenshots of the website provided by the person who filed the grievance, then looked at the website on their own accord but failed to take their own screenshots for evidence.
The court allowed extra time to be used, in addition to the 20 minutes each side had to argue its stance, to question Daniel and the ERC’s procedures. Danish Hasan, who ran for president with Patil and also attended the hearing, said afterwards that the judges were very thorough and critical in the proceedings.
“They were perhaps more critical of the ERC, but that is the nature of the case since Cocco requested an appeal investigating their procedures,” Hasan said.
As a third candidate in the election, Hasan said it is the candidate’s job to find out about campaign rules and statutes but the ERC head and supervisor of elections, Sayf Hassouneh, was always open to questions.
“(Hassouneh) was always professional when I asked questions,” Hasan said. “He always answered with a yes or a no, with no gray area, and he always answered when he could.”
Brandi Arnold, who was named student body president-elect after Cocco was disqualified from the runoff election, said she will not be concerned while waiting for the ruling of the court to come out in the next few days.
“I’m still hoping to be certified so I work for the student body, but no matter what position I hold, I can still make change in the university,” she said.