Money and a university education go hand in hand. Whether students like it or not, they must find ways of financing their education. Some will take a burger flipping job at a fast food chain, others will apply for student loans and a few will choose to start their own companies and try to make a profit. Each way has its pros and cons. However, when you are a paid Concordia Student Union (CSU) executive, starting your own events management company may be frowned upon by the student population that elected you.
Last Wednesday a CSU council meeting was held to discuss the details of Russell Lobo’s involvement in Renaud Odeh Lobo Incorporated (ROL) is an events management company Lobo created last October with Paul Renaud, VP external affairs from Commerce and Administration Student’s Association (CASA). Lobo, VP Student Life, is part of the Evolution party currently in power on the CSU executive council. His mandate is to organize student activities on campus.
”The idea for the company started off as a student bursary program,” Lobo said. ”But the legalities involved would have taken forever for setting up a company and there would have been too much control from the government. So we decided to set up a for-profit events management company to have shows and concerts, and donate $250,000 to students in bursaries every year.”
The number was an estimate made by management. The company has not yet held an event and has yet to make a profit.
”My role in the company was that of Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Logistics,” said Lobo. ”Making sure we should have enough money in the bank, making sure the flyers were ready on time and to have the cell phones ready to pick up. That’s why I didn’t see the conflict of interest. I was able to separate the two. To do my 40 or 50 hours here [in the CSU office] to do whatever was needed, and to do my own thing on my own time.”
Noah Stewart Ornstein, a CSU councillor on the legislative branch of the student union for the faculty of Arts and Science and member of Coalition Concordia, had a different interpretation of Russell’s involvement in the events.
”Russell has misused his position on the CSU for his own benefit. As an elected representative for the students he has a real obligation, ethically, to behave in a way that both represents students in their best interest and not use CSU resources in a wrongful way for his own benefit. As an executive, you’re held to a higher bar.”
The problem is that it will be very hard to prove whether or not Lobo misused CSU resources. It boils down to who you choose to believe. An example Ornstein cited was that Lobo’s cell phone, paid for by the CSU, was listed as his contact number on the site. The number has since been taken down. Lobo assured council that this was a miscommunication between the Web designer and himself. He also claimed that he never misused CSU resources, whether it was the office, his computer, his CSU expense account or his cell phone.
Another issue of concern is the amount of CSU involvement in the company. For example, in the website it states that the evaluation committee for the bursary scholarships would include the CSU president Mohamed Shuriye, current CSU president stated, ”That was a short-sightedness on his company’s part to write that in there. I had never agreed to it nor discussed it with Russell.”
Mohamed claimed he had first spoken with Lobo about the company just prior to early December, but he was not aware of the details of its operations until January – he was away in Uganda for most of December. At that time he didn’t understand the full extent of Lobo company’s involvements with the CSU or what the company had set out to accomplish. But he did tell him to be wary of a possible conflict of interest.
It remains unclear as to exactly when the executive was fully informed about all the details of ROL Inc. Lobo claimed to have been open about the company’s actions and intentions from the very beginning : ”I’ve not been hiding it, I’ve been telling everybody, people have been coming here and asking me about it,” he said.
The issue about why executive had not brought it to council’s attention earlier remained troublesome for Ornstein : ”Did none of these executives look at the website? Why did the executive not act in an honest way and disclose to council members the nature of Russell’s activities?”
When asked about this Shariya maintained ”We would have brought it up to council because of the serious implications of the website: both the listing of the phone number and the mentioning of the CSU president.”
What was clear at last Wednesday’s meeting was that the executive had a planned response for the questions raised about Lobo’s company. By having Lobo resign from his position at ROL, they effectively deviated any questions about prior executive knowledge about ROL or its activities. ”We gave him a choice,” said Shuriye, ”you can fully continue with your company, where you have invested your time and money, or you can leave the CSU.”
Lobo said that many councillors came up to him and questioned him about his involvement in the company after the first council meeting in early January. ”I understand now,” said Lobo. ”The company’s portfolio could be seen as similar in the sense that they plan events, but they are directed for the population at large and not just for students. The way I looked at it was that I was not doing the same thing in both ROL inc and the CSU. But obviously students saw a conflict of interest. They could have thought that I misused resources. I own up to that. I messed up. Because I’d like to continue doing my work at the CSU.”
Lobo’s resignation from ROL was not enough, or at best misguided, according to Ornstein.
”I think it was the right thing to do to resign from ROL,” he said. ”But I think it would have been a better thing if he resigned from the CSU. As far as his company is concerned, he does not have a conflict of interest, he can take any position he wants. It’s with his position in the CSU where the conflict lies, so it seems reversed to me. It would have made more sense to stay with the company, where he has not violated any ethical obligations, and to resign his seat on the CSU executive. If he had brought it up to council in a forthright way, I would have dealt with this in a very different manner.”
”I understand that as a public office holder, he (Lobo) is held to a higher standard because he is elected by students,” said Shuriye. ”However, if there is no means to account for a public office holder to say ‘you must do so and so’, as opposed to ‘not do so and so,’ you could say that there appears to be, but that there isn’t necessarily a conflict of interest.”
The perception of possible corruption from an elected public officer remains a relevant issue. Lobo acted in a very defensive manner when questioned about his company’s activities in the first executive council meeting in early January. ”At first I was on the defensive,” said Lobo. ”I was like, how dare you tell me what to do with my time. Because I could clearly distinguish between the two (his company and the CSU). But obviously a lot of people are upset about this. I honestly do see it as a conflict of interest.”
The fact that he resigned from his company after realising that there could be a conflict of interest does not terminate the issue, according to Ornstein. ”To use the analogy from Mathew Perron (Fine Arts councillor), if George Bush pulled all his troops out of Iraq, would we stop asking questions about why he went there in the first place? I don’t feel that just because you resign (from ROL) that it vindicates you. Maybe he is not in the position to lead if he couldn’t see from the get-go the ethical issues in this situation.”
Shuriye is now working with councilors to prepare an accountability package for the CSU executive. This package will discuss what can and cannot be done in terms of employment from member’s of the CSU paid executive. ”We will take steps to put it in the by-laws or to ratify as motions that have a majority of councilors’ consent on it.”
Lobo, maintained that he is willing to talk to students about the issue. ”Obviously people will have a problem with it. I would like to get the message across that if you have any questions or concerns, that I have office hours and an email address.” He does plan to return to the company when his mandate is completed in four months.
The next CSU meeting will be Wednesday February 8. The CSU states on it’s website: ”.if you want a large overhaul of policy or to change how the CSU works or does things, go to council.” The legislative council, there to provide checks and balances for CSU executive, is composed of members from both Evolution and Coalition Concordia student parties. Lobo acknowledges that when council members are associated to political parties, opinions can be swayed. He questions the timing of the attack made my Coalition Council members with an upcoming election in the next few months. If students feel that this is an issue for them, they are encouraged to contact their respective councilors.
For more information check the CSU website at CSU.qc.ca or rolinc.