Pitzer Senate Loses Track Of $40,000: Lack of Accounting, Oversight Led To Questionable Spending Decisions
At least $40,000 disappeared from the Pitzer College Student Senate budget by the end of the fall 2017 semester, the most egregious example of chronic disorganization and accounting issues that have plagued the organization for years.
Current and former members of Pitzer Senate, including former Vice President Lora McManus PZ ’18, who resigned Tuesday, have revealed systemic failures that opened the door to abuse of funds, and a culture without safeguards against questionable spending decisions.
Because no one tracked expenditures using the Senate’s credit card, it would have been possible for someone to use the card for personal purchases without getting caught, McManus said.
All Pitzer clubs and the executive board use Senate credit cards that draw from the same pool of money, so anyone in any Pitzer club could have spent the missing money, McManus said.
The unaccounted-for $40,000 — roughly 15 percent of the total budget — was all spent on the Senate credit cards, McManus said. When students used the credit cards, the receipts were rarely entered into the master accounting spreadsheet.
McManus thinks someone could have bought a TV on the Senate credit card and no one would have noticed.
“You could literally take [the credit card] from the student Senate office and probably no one would notice that it was missing for a good week or two,” she said, “and then put it back with ... $5,000 [of charges] on it.”
Senators first noticed the missing money in November after comparing the amount of money spent on Senate credit cards to the spending logged in the Senate’s records, Senate Secretary Kamyab Mashian PZ ’19 said.
To determine how much money was left at the end of the year, senators pieced together receipts and credit card records and compared them to the numbers in their books, Mashian said.
At the end of the comparison, the Senate noticed they had recorded $40,000 less than receipts indicated they had spent, leading Mashian to conclude there were “transactions that had somehow not been entered into our master spreadsheet.”
The missing funds came as a shock to senators.
“We were caught a little bit off-guard by the magnitude of it, especially since we had kind of been operating under the assumption that all of our previous treasurers had been quite good at keeping records,” Mashian said.
However, Mashian suspects that the situation is not as bad as it looks on paper.
“It looks like most of the money was spent the way it was supposed to be spent,” he said. Instead, the transactions somehow had not been entered into the master spreadsheet and therefore had not been tracked, he said.
The clubs that were close to exceeding their allowances kept good records, “but there would have been nothing stopping them [from overspending],” he said, because there was no functioning system in place to keep clubs and organizations accountable.
McManus suspects this is not the first time Senate funds have gone missing.
“I’m sure it has been happening for years; I just don’t think anyone has ever caught it until this year,” she said.
Many senators believe the financial mess stems from the overwhelming number of responsibilities of the Senate treasurer, which is “absolutely impossible to do as a single person who is also a full-time student,” senator Simone Bishara PZ ’18 said.
There have been four different treasurers this year, excluding the senators who stepped in on a temporary basis, McManus said. “We need ... a paid staff person to help us to do this because it’s not a student’s job,” she added.
Events Board Chair Elijah Pantoja PZ ’18 said there have been at least seven treasurers in his four years at Pitzer.
Because of the workload and the turnover, accounting transactions and records have often fallen through the cracks, multiple senators said.
Last year’s Senate president, Josue Pasillas PZ ’17, said there were “no financial records left [of some executive board expenses], because when the transition happened from treasurer to treasurer, [the records] weren’t kept by the new treasurer,” he said.
Last October, following the resignation of treasurer Jacquelyn Aguilera PZ ’19, “there were no financial reports made for the rest of the semester,” Bishara said. “While we all stepped up to fill different parts of the [treasurer] position, the financial reports fell through,” she said.
Some questionable purchases were discovered last November when Aguilera requested the Senate’s credit card statements, which are managed by Pitzer’s Office of Student Affairs. “She was the first treasurer to ever get access to the Wells Fargo account,” McManus said.
These bank statements included expenses from the Presidential Leadership Conference in the summer of 2017, which current Senate President Hajar Hammado PZ ’18 and Pasillas attended, totaling $1,579.60. Former communications secretary Claire Wengrod PZ ’19 said their spending was approved, but Mashian, who was not on executive board at the time of the expenditure, disagreed.
“The executive board didn't sign off on this. It was just two members of that executive board making the decision to spend this money that way because they had leftover funds,” Mashian said.
The most troubling charge for Mashian was a $100 cash withdrawal from an ATM. It is impossible to trace how that money was spent.
“I don't think at any point student activities fund should be able to be withdrawn as cash,” he said. “I think that's a terrible idea. But it's not against one of our rules.”
Hammado said all of these funds were used appropriately.
“This allegation [that funds were misused] was brought to the executive board’s attention last fall and ... it was put to rest by facts and truth some time ago,” she wrote in an email to TSL.
Hammado did not respond to repeated requests from TSL for further comment on the issue.
The allegation that Senate funds were sometimes used for non-Senate activities is not unique to the conference.
Last year, it was rumored that two or three members of the executive board would frequently go to Starbucks with the Senate credit card and call it a meeting, McManus said.
“I frankly think it's completely ridiculous that just one person, whoever's holding the credit card, can make the expense in the name of the executive board,” Mashian said.
Additionally, confusion over spending procedures and different accounts led Hammado to spend nearly $2,000 of this year’s operating budget purchasing Pitzer-branded office supplies like stress balls and mason jars.
Hammado believed she was spending the leftover funds from the previous year’s operating budget, but because the fiscal year had ended, the purchases were pulled from the executive board’s $5,000 budget for this academic year, depleting a large portion of it before the year even began, Mashian said.
The privileges of the Pitzer Senate executive board are not limited to credit card purchases.
In a Snapchat video obtained by TSL, members of the executive board are shown serving alcohol in the Pitzer Senate office, using Senate glasses.
In another video, Pantoja accesses the Shakedown Cafe with the master key after hours as part of what he calls a “power trip.” Pantoja declined to comment on the incident.
Although these incidences did not break any rules, they displayed a “disrespect of space ... when we are entrusted with so much money and so much power,” McManus said.
Hammado said “allegations of alcohol use in the Senate office were made and the matter was handled by the appropriate college administrators in accordance [with] all relevant college policies and procedures.”
Despite the Senate’s problems, McManus said the credit cards system was implemented to remove the financial burden from students.
They are critical for “students [who] can’t afford to pay ... up front, [because] they don’t have to fork out the money then wait two months for reimbursement. [They] can just put it on the credit card and be done with it,” she said.
Even if the disappearance of the $40,000 was likely not due to misuse or theft, it does demonstrate the dire need for accounting reform in the Senate, Mashian said.
The Senate plans to restructure the position of treasurer for next year’s executive branch “to alleviate [the workload on a] single person,” Pantoja said.
Mashian hopes to implement “more rules into our budget bylaws about how things are reported and recorded.” He added that splitting the executive board funds from the general Senate expenditures would reduce confusion.
“There’s a lot of risks involved with the way we've been keeping records in terms of money being misused,” Mashian said.
Marc Rod and Liam Brooks contributed reporting.