By Ryan Schwach, Managing News Editor
The results of the USG presidential vote are in question with an ongoing investigation into USG President-Elect Carlos Jesus Calzadilla-Palacio’s campaign with a hearing being held on Tuesday, May 7. The investigation began after allegations of slander with racist implications surfaced from one of his former opponents.
On Thursday, May 2, it was announced Calzadilla-Palacio and his vice president, Nailah Pressley, had won the first ever Undergraduate Student Government Presidential election, beating out current CLAS member Alyssa Taylor and her running mate Ethan Milich by a margin of 596 to 458.
“Seeing the results were very emotionally overwhelming,” Calzadilla-Palacio told the Kingsman.
But the victory celebrations were short-lived. After this past weekend, it was announced that the election results were being challenged by a CLAS disciplinary committee after USG Presidential candidate Hamza Khilji claimed he was the target of a smear campaign led by Calzadilla-Palacio.
During the course of elections, Khilji had said that he would refuse the stipend given to the president. Khilji claims that he heard from numerous people that Calzadilla-Palacio had spread a rumor that Khilji wasn’t accepting that stipend because his family was wealthy and had ownership in oil companies: a comment with racial and Islamophobic implications, considering that Khilji is both Pakistani and Muslim. (In reality, Khilji’s parents are not wealthy: his father is a civil engineer and his mother is a stay-at-home-mom.)
Calzadilla-Palacio has continuously denied these allegations. On Sunday he made a Facebook post with the hashtag “Protect the Vote,” asking people to e-mail appeals to campus administrators, and to “not let your vote and voice in this election be stolen.”
It was then announced that a hearing would be held on Tuesday, May 7 to further investigate the comments. The hearing was helmed by committee members Kyle Larick, Victoria Baraiah, and Irene Berger. Berger had replaced Navin Rana, who resigned from the committee earlier, citing a conflict of interest. Still, Calzadilla-Palacio insisted on possible bias among the three CLAS representatives tasked with carrying out the investigation. He cited Larick’s relationship with Stephanie Ortega, who ran as treasurer on Alyssa Taylor’s ticket.
However, as it came out during the hearing, Larick works for WBCR under Nailah Pressley, and his fraternity endorsed Calzadilla-Palacio’s campaign. In addition, Calzadilla-Palacio claimed Victoria Beraiah was a close friend of Taylor’s, but during the hearing, Beraiah reminded Calzadilla-Palacio that he offered her a position on his campaign.
In his opening statement, Khilji claimed he had originally heard these rumors weeks ago during the campaign, and investigated what he had heard.
“There was a general ‘he said, she said’ kind of consensus,” he stated during the hearing. “I was talking to someone else and they said they did some digging around and they said […] it’s the person you think it was.”
This person turned out to be Carlos Calzadilla-Palacio. Afterwards, Khilji made a Facebook post on April 14 regarding the rumours and their possible racial implications.
Calzadilla-Palacio vehemently denied having made these comments, and that he was sure “without a shadow of a doubt, that that statement did not come from me.”
He made the argument that his past work as an activist has been standing against such sentiments the alleged comments contain, and that he ran a clean campaign, even going as far as saying it was Khilji who ran the truly negative campaign.
“This has been deeply hurtful,” he said.
Calzadilla-Palacio had several witnesses there to attest to his character, that he was not the kind of person to make the alleged comments, and also that they themselves never heard him make these comments. Among these half-dozen witnesses were Luke Messina (who said, “I have full confidence he would not say this”) and Alison Derevensky (who said, “I really don’t believe he’d be able to say that.”) It should be stated, these testimonies were solely on character, and not evidence to say whether or not Calzadilla-Palacio made these statements, at least not to those testifying.
While Calzadilla-Palacio relied heavily on character witnesses, who could not definitively say he had not made the claims, Khilji relied upon a relatively small set of witnesses who made concrete claims.
The first of these was Zainab Iqbal, Editor-in-Chief of the Excelsior newspaper, who first reported on the investigation on Sunday, May 5. Iqbal testified that she had three different sources – including an unnamed member of Calzadilla-Palacio’s slate – who claimed they had personally heard Calzadilla-Palacio make the oil company comment.
“They are all trustworthy sources,” she said.
Another submitted testimony, from an anonymous member of the New York Public Interest Relations Group (NYPIRG), stated that Calzadilla-Palacio not only repeated the racist comments to them, but that he also said he intended to use the rumor in his campaign, saying that “this is how we wanted to frame Hamza to the student body.”
The room fell silent after Kyle Larick finished reading the statement.
Perhaps the most damning testimony came from Young Progressives of America (YPA) chapter President Corinne Greene, who worked with Calzadilla-Palacio (the founder of YPA) on several activism events, most notably the October protests calling for the termination of controversial business professor Mitchell Langbert.
Greene stated her testimony was neither for nor against, but merely “circumstantial evidence.” She prefaced her statement questioning the legitimacy of the investigation and called for an independent inquiry into the allegations by either the Campus-Wide Election Review Committee (CWERC) or by an independent group. She went on to confirm that a USG Presidential candidate – who had approached her asking to have her as their VP – told her in a conversation in the Tow Performing Arts Center on the day of the vigil for victims of the Christchurch shooting in March that Khilji’s family “was wealthy and they believed his parents owned an oil company.” Of the four people who ran for USG President, only Calzadilla-Palacio fits her description.
She said she believed these comments to be true until she saw Khilji’s April 14 Facebook post.
“I was immediately alarmed upon realizing the potentially racist undertones of the comment that I had heard upon realizing it was indeed false,” she said.
Greene clarified she does not call for Calzadilla-Palacio to have his election victory revoked. She did claim, however, that all of his character testimonies should be revoked, because they do not provide any evidence.
Calzadilla-Palacio “unequivocally condemns” the accusations that he ever made these comments.
The committee will make its decision on Thursday, May 9 after declaring their conclusion to CWERC. They will announce their decision to the public by 7 p.m. that same day.