Pitzer Senate Leaders Promise Reform, Transparency In Wake Of Financial Revelations

Pitzer Student Senate Executive Board members Jack Kessel PZ ’19, Hajar Hammado PZ ’18, and Kamyab Mashian PZ ’19 discuss matters on campus in the wake of recent criticism on March 25. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

Pitzer College Student Senate’s incoming executive board is promising accountability and transparency in the wake of revelations of poor accounting practices and potential misuse of funds by the organization.

The details, first reported by TSL March 23, describe how the Senate lost track of more than $40,000, and include allegations of unapproved spending by some senators.

The recently elected incoming executive board addressed these financial and ethical issues in a statement Tuesday.

“The fact that funds could be spent without being tracked internally allows for the possibility that they could be misused,” the statement said.

The new board also emphasized its commitment to transparency and promised to “publish a live spreadsheet tracking all Senate expenditures, including purchases made through credit cards, which can be viewed by all students.”

Senate members said that although they believe most of the untracked money ultimately will be accounted for when the organization switches to a new accounting system, they have identified lapses in spending practices that need to be rectified.

One of these instances occurred last summer, when former Senate President Josue Pasillas PZ ’17 and current President Hajar Hammado PZ ’18 traveled to a presidential leadership conference in Washington, D.C. Expenses totaling $1,579.60 — including flights, cash withdrawals, Uber trips, and inflight WiFi costs — were charged to the Senate credit card.

Claire Wengrod PZ ’19 said in an email to TSL that the executive board agreed to “fully fund the conference.”

However, President-Elect Shivani Kavuluru PZ ’19, who was also on the executive board as secretary in spring 2017, said she and the rest of the board were never informed that Pasillas and Hammado would take the Senate credit card to D.C.

Treasurer Jack Kessel PZ ’19 said in an email to TSL that “none of [these transactions] were approved” by the Senate at large, including the flights to the conference.

Senate secretary Kamyab Mashian PZ ’19 wrote in an email to TSL that he could find no record in the budget committee spreadsheet of any request for funding for a conference.

Mashian wrote that he interpreted the decision to spend on the conference to be a violation of Senate bylaws, which state that “all unspent funds move to the reserve fund at the end of the academic year.” The purchases happened over the summer, which prevented the money from going into the reserve.

This instance of misusing funds “raises serious ethical issues,” Mashian said after the Senate meeting Sunday.

Mashian added after the meeting that the funding controversy “has been a complete failure in leadership; we can’t even figure out what the truth is.”

“It’s valid for students to feel frustrated [about the conference],” Kavuluru said. “[It] was an abuse of power and mismanaging [of] funds.”

Pasillas said in an interview prior to the publication of the initial article that the majority of the funds were approved by the budget committee, while some of the conference was paid for out of an internal reserve fund.

Kavuluru said that during her term as secretary, the executive board sometimes held meetings off campus, including at Starbucks, where senators bought drinks using the Senate credit card.

“I personally felt uncomfortable using the Senate card to buy anything without talking to the legislature first,” but it was not uncommon, she said.

Hammado did not return TSL’s eight email and phone requests for comment since last Friday.

Posts sharing TSL’s initial article to current Pitzer students Facebook group were deleted by one of its moderators, who are members of Pitzer Senate — either Elijah Pantoja PZ ’18, Simone Bishara PZ ’18, Hammado, or Mashian.

Some senators criticized TSL’s reporting.

Senator Isaiah Kramer PZ ’20 said he was concerned with the way the article depicted Pitzer Senate.

It made “Senate look completely incompetent” and spread a “false reputation of Pitzer College,” he said.

Kramer specifically disagreed with TSL’s description of the untracked funds and worried that it did not convey to readers that the funds did not disappear, but instead were not entered into the spreadsheet.

At the Senate meeting Sunday, Hammado said TSL “disregarded the truth” and “none of that’s true.” She did not specify which portions of the article she believed to be inaccurate.

Incoming vice president of external affairs Clint Isom PZ ’20 raised concerns about the way the $40,000 was discussed. He said that the article “brought up legitimate concerns” but the money “did not just disappear.”

Nevertheless, the Senate is “currently taking steps to address [the] issues” raised in the article, according to the statement from the incoming executive board.

Associate Dean Dan Hirsch said much of the budget confusion will be cleared up once the Senate vice president of finance has access to a new accounting system called Workday.

With this system, the vice president of finance will be able to “access past transactions and approve future transactions.”

He said he thinks Workday will reveal that the majority of the unaccounted-for money was probably spent paying outside speakers, or sending money to ASPC to contribute to 5C clubs.

The Senate attributed the untracked funds to the transition between treasurers, during which time approved transactions were not recorded in an official spreadsheet.

Former treasurer Jacquelyn Aguilera PZ ’19 wrote in an email to TSL that the treasurer position came with a large amount of power and responsibility.

“The way the executive board is currently structured relies heavily on the well-intentions of individual elected leaders,” she wrote. Aguilera is also hopeful that the newly restructured its executive branch model will allow for “more checks and balances, while preserving student autonomy.”

Members of next year’s executive board promised to abide by high standards of behavior in using Senate funds.

Senators are “going to hold [themselves] to the same standards as students” in terms of using of Senate funds, Isom said.

The current executive board may be in for major shakeups in the near future. The Senate discussed a bill Sunday that would allow the recently elected board, which normally would assume office in the fall, to start now instead.

Members of the current executive board argued that because of recent resignations that have dwindled the board down to three people, its continued governance is not sustainable.

The motion was ultimately tabled until April 8.

Kavuluru said this proposition was a “blessing in disguise [because] all of us get to learn the ropes a lot sooner.”

She feels optimistic about next year’s structure and commitment to transparency.

“I feel very confident that next year is going to be better,” she said.

Liam Brooks contributed reporting.