by Samantha Stark & Ellen Rossow
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A former Student Senate member is filing a lawsuit against his student government. Paralegal studies and computer science senior Jamaal Abegaz is taking members of Student Senate to Clay County District Court for various violations. Abegaz will represent himself.
According to the official complaint for Abegaz v. Duckworth, Abegaz is alleging nine counts of violations — one violation of government data practices, three violations of open meeting law, two violations of state election law, two violations of the MSUM Student Government Association Constitution and willfulness of conduct by the defendants.
“They are continually failing obligations as a public body under Minnesota law,” Abegaz told the Forum.
How it started
Abegaz’s issue with Senate first came to public light following his resignation from the group on January 19, after what he calls the unlawful removal of Legislative and Internal Affairs Chair Kelsey Slattery. Her removal was a final straw for Abegaz, who was frustrated with numerous constitutional inconsistencies, particularly with the Executive Board, which is made up of Student Body President Sean Duckworth and Treasurer Charles “Chris” Bergman (now President-Elect).
“They went ahead and started violating the constitution because they felt like it. That’s when I resigned,” Abegaz said, adding that the constitution had “a lot of holes in it,” which the Senate “fixed” in their favor.
Abegaz’s frustrations did not begin nor end with Slattery’s removal or constitutional inconsistencies, he said, citing numerous points of contention with Duckworth this year.
One instance was Senator John Hermann and Abegaz pointing out flaws in the Senate’s communication policy, particularly considering public disclosure of meetings.
Hermann and Abegaz conducted legislative and legal research into Minnesota Open Meeting Laws to help the Senate act lawfully. According to Abegaz’s complaint, the research led him to seek advice from the Minnesota State Attorney General’s Office, asking if MSUM Student Senate is a “public body” or not, which would cause them to have to comply with said laws.
According to the complaint, Abegaz’s research was to be sent to the Attorney General’s Office after basic editing and approval by the Senate. To Abegaz’s knowledge, it was never sent.
“They decided they wanted to do what they wanted to do regardless of whether or not we were a public body,” Abegaz said.
Abegaz also was allegedly “sidelined” by members of the senate, who refused him time to speak during meetings. Abegaz wasn’t bothered by this, he said, until it got out of hand.
“I was perfectly fine with being sidelined, as long as they aren’t violating the rules and the law while doing it,” he said, adding his sole intention was to work with the senate to fix things.
“I tried to work with them, specifically the president,” he said. “I heard through other members that, at some point in the year, I was trying to take his power. I didn’t want to be president. I’m not in a pissing contest with anyone.”
Another point of frustration for Abegaz was the recent election. According to Abegaz’s complaint, numerous conflicts of interest resulted from Duckworth’s appointment of senators to the body’s Election Board, despite their intention to run for office, Abegaz said.
“The individuals that are more in favor and influential in the Senate … are set up to be the next officers in the Senate for the next year,” he said, adding that this was something that has happened before.
“The first time, I was there and I rose a stink about it,” Abegaz said. “That’s unethical. That’s a conflict of interest. They did it anyway and they did it again.”
For Abegaz, “one year lost is enough for the Student Senate.”
“This (suit) is particularly pointed at the individuals more than the body, because these individuals led the body to do what they wanted it to do,” he said. “Student Senate had its own agenda, the agenda of those few people, and they kind of dragged people along.”
Senators were also campaigning unconstitutionally, in polling places, Abegaz said.
Abegaz’s lawsuit names eight specific members of the Senate as liable, as well as the Senate as a whole. Duckworth, Bergman, Hermann, Courtney O’Reilly, Dylan Green, Megan Warneke, Alex Tollefson, and Jesse Nelson are listed on the complaint.
“I’m suing these people and the body. I have to sue the body as well, because it was the body that acted at the end of the day,” he said.
Abegaz said MSUM administration has no role in the suit, adding he worded the suit to specifically exclude the institution.
“It isn’t the schools fault,” he said. “It’s the (elected) students’. (It’s their) job to know their jobs, to carry them out faithfully and to represent the students.”
Interim Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Doug Peters said it’s clear that MSUM has no substantial role in the case.
“It’s a situation between students, and that the student who is bring the case forward had more than one option, and that’s the venue he chose. At the end of the day, it’s a suit that does not name MSUM as a party, and so we don’t feel it’s appropriate to comment further on that.”
Peters also said MSUM’s priority is its students.
“We are working to bring this to the best possible outcome and answer questions that have been raised,” he said.
Abegaz said he wouldn’t want administration involved.
“Going to another source of authority that has no legitimate power over Student Senate, I didn’t see as an option,” he said. “Nor would I want it to have power over the student government.”
‘This is what I want’
Abegaz wants to see change.
“I hope … to stop people who are doing bad things (from continuing) to do bad things,” he said. (I also want to) put the onus on people that are actually paying attention and participating, (and) remind people that you have to hold your government responsible. It’s we the people.”
Abegaz hopes a public policy training program will be put in place to stop further unlawful action.
“It’s a mandated program that would teach people how to do their job and how to do it well,” he said. “Senate would have to pay for that out of their budget, but if it goes a long way to professionalizing the senate than it will be money well spent.”
The Senate will have to pay civil fines totaling $2,700, which Abegaz said he “wouldn’t see a dime” of.. A currently unknown amount of monetary damages would go to him, however.
“That money would come from the budget they’ve allocated for themselves,” he said. “And seeing as how they’ve voted to give themselves raises both last year and this year I think The Senate can afford it.”
Abegaz hopes attention drawn by this suit will cause students to be more mindful of the Senate.
“The only reason something like this can happen is because there are no students participating,” he said. “If people cared, if people went to Senate meetings, if people actually read the agendas, they wouldn’t be able to sneak these things by.”
When questioned, Duckworth maintained Student Senate’s stance on student input and appeals as the preferred form of addressing issues.
“The Student Senate encourages input, from the students we have been elected to represent, in our decision-making process… We encourage students to participate in the appeals process set by the university, as well as all other avenues provided for by the institution,” Duckworth shared.
Abegaz said he needed to do something.
“They progressively kept not doing the things that they needed to do, that they knew they needed to do (and) that they said they were going to do,” he said. “It just wore me down, to the point that I needed to do something about it.”