Sorting through the dialogue: The story behind an ASU senator's impeachment
Memorial Union on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. Isabelle Murray is currently in the
process of appealing her impeachment. (Photo by Andrew Ybanez)
She’s been accused of lacking moral character as well as praised for being the voice of the disenfranchised. She describes herself as one who stands up for what’s right in a sea of politics, yet some believe she used underhanded political moves to achieve her goals. She said her voice was silenced by impeachment, yet her actions led to the removal of one of her colleagues.
Isabelle Murray was a Tempe USG senator representing the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences until she was impeached in late October under several grounds, two of which involved speaking to the media.
“I (was) very much silenced and definitely targeted,” Murray said.
As the president of the Rainbow Coalition for members of the ASU LGBTQ community and facilitator for the Disabled Students Coalition, Murray was widely regarded as a senator with expansive knowledge of the desires of minority groups on campus. She also worked with many other coalitions, including ethnic minority coalitions and the Womyns’ Coalition.
The impeachment has attracted widespread media attention and has outraged many students, who echoed Murray’s statements that she was impeached because Tempe USG wanted to silence her controversial opinions.
Her critics say she crossed the line through privacy violations and unethical behavior.
The events leading to Murray’s removal from office as well as the impeachment hearing have been clouded with wildly contrasting accounts. Both claim to have morality, and the University, on their side.
The Road to Impeachment
Chronologically, Murray’s first offense toward impeachment began Oct. 8, when she was put on probation by the CLAS College Council, which represents her constituents. She wasn't attending college council meetings because they conflicted with her class schedule.
Murray had previously notified CLAS College Council President Jessica Woo about this conflict and was excused from those meetings. However, she was also unable to attend the meetings of her committee within the senate, the University Affairs Committee. Woo said this concerned her because when Murray was absent, the opinions of the students she represented were also absent.
Murray was supposed to send regular email updates to the CLAS Council as well as her senate committee. The groups said this did not happen to the standards they wanted.
Woo said beyond the absences, Murray also wasn’t fulfilling her responsibilities to consult with her constituents.
“We also felt like she was writing a lot of bills that she wasn’t asking our opinion on, which is kind of the purpose of the college council,” she said. “We felt out of the loop, and we’d find out about new bills through The State Press.”
Because of this behavior, Woo placed Murray on probation until she could regularly update the CLAS College Council via email and improve her communication. Woo and Murray both said these requirements were met for the time between Oct. 8 and Murray’s impeachment Oct. 21.
Despite her respect for Murray as a student leader, some of her actions led Woo to believe serving constituents was not Murray's first priority, Woo said.
“In the end, I did support the impeachment because I felt like it might not have been the best time for Isabelle to be in senate right now, and it might be better with someone else in,” she said.
Around this same time, Murray began engaging in discussions with Kyle Denman, the president of the Black and African Coalition, about creating a bill that would address the issue of students wearing black face paint to the “blackout” football game against UCLA. This paint was considered highly offensive to several members of the BAC because of the historical context of blackface as demeaning to African-American culture.
The two had an informal meeting to discuss possibilities for the bill, which The State Press attended. The State Press received and published direct quotes from both Denman and Murray about the ideas for the proposed legislation.
However, Murray had not notified her superiors, namely Senate President Will Smith or Tempe USG President Cassidy Possehl, of her intention to speak to the media.
In a document distributed by the USG to all its members, titled, “Expectations,” the USG states, “(Members) must inform President of the Senate or President of USG of intention to address media before making any comments related or unrelated to USG.” All senators signed this document before the first USG meeting. USG provided this document as an example of what Murray signed.
Murray said she saw no need to notify Smith or Possehl of these comments, because they were her own personal opinions against racism, which were not contentious.
“Basically we were just talking back and forth, and (The State Press) near the end was asking us some questions that I saw no issue answering because I wasn’t taking a position with the USG,” Murray said. “I personally am against racism, and I didn't find it controversial to say that or make any of the remarks that I made.”
Murray also said her copy of the “Expectations” page was different from the one provided by Tempe USG to The State Press. She said her copy did not have the clause about speaking to the media, and in its place has a clause forbidding inappropriate social media updates. Murray provided this document to show this difference.
She said the discrepancy between these documents means intentional tampering should not be ruled out.
“I don’t know if there are two different copies or if someone edited it after the fact, when they realized (the media contact notification clause) wasn’t actually stated for senators,” she said.
Senate President Will Smith said the entire senate discussed this expectation at the beginning of the year and no questions were raised then.
“We talked about this at retreat,” Smith said. “Isabelle Murray was present, and she never said anything.”
After the article was published, Murray said there was a great deal of backlash from USG because she had not notified Smith or Possehl of her intention to speak to the press about her ideas for this potential bill.
USG President Cassidy Possehl said she also felt a backlash, this one from the constituents who were upset this upcoming legislation had been created without their being consulted. Because this legislation hadn’t yet been formally written, Possehl didn’t know about Murray’s idea to write the bill until the article was published.
“I then had to backtrack with those constituents who sent me emails and say, ‘I’ve never seen that legislation,’” she said. “That makes our organization as a whole look extremely disorganized as well, as if our entire organization is not following due process. That’s not the case. We weren’t given the opportunity in that moment to follow up with our constituents, to have a clear and concise message about what was coming out of our organization labeled with ‘USG.’”
After speaking with Smith about the specific expectation, Murray sent both Smith and Possehl an email apologizing for not speaking to them before The State Press. Both Smith and Possehl said they appreciated the apology but were simply happy to move on, as this wasn’t a major breach of USG bylaws.
At this time, Murray said she began to be harassed on the USG Facebook group as well as in the comments sections of articles written about her because of her opinions.
Then, the final piece leading toward Murray’s impeachment occurred when she shared information regarding two students’ dispute being mediated by the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, a campus investigative and disciplinary body, with the media.
Murray had evidence used in this case on her phone in the form of a screenshot of an offensive email one senator sent to another student. She said she sent the screenshot to The State Press as an example of one senator's bullying, even though the email was not about her. At the time, the senator was part of an open disciplinary case and Murray asked her name not be released in connection with the data.
The State Press then asked Smith and Possehl for comments about the email, who said they were completely unaware this incident had happened.
Jack Tyo, who allegedly sent the email and later resigned his senator position as a result of this information being released, said the timing of the information leak shows Murray’s true intentions. He and Murray were disagreeing about how to handle the blackface incident at the time.
“She and I got into a rather heated discussion about it on the USG Facebook page,” he said. “The next thing I knew, she had sent the evidence which was used with the Student Rights and Responsibilities to The State Press. … She might want to make it sound like an ethics thing, but if it was, she should have done it the minute it came out, because I have found out that she knew about it way back, several weeks prior when the incident had allegedly happened.”
Possehl also said she believe Murray had released this information to intentionally harm Tyo’s reputation.
“She was intentionally trying to harm (Tyo’s) reputation and unfortunately the reputation of student government by bringing this to the media before she ever tried to bring this to student government to clarify,” she said.
Tyo said he agreed with Murray’s impeachment whole-heartedly because of this incident.
“She got impeached because of the dirty, underhanded release of information,” he said. “Basically, she used an unethical method to silence someone who had a different opinion from hers. …(But) she’s portraying herself as the victim.”
Tyo said because of an agreement he and the other student have with the Student Rights and Responsibilities Office, he cannot disclose if he did write the email in question.
“All I will say is it’s very easy to fake an email,” he said. “This email was reported to come from my student account. I am not that stupid.”
After Smith and Possehl found out about Tyo’s case, they asked who had given The State Press the private information. The State Press reporter would not reveal the name, but said it was a senator who was also involved with the Rainbow Coalition. Based on this information, Smith approached Murray and asked if she was the source, and she admitted to releasing the information.
Smith said this was when he knew something serious had to be done about Murray’s actions.
“If you look at the history of what was happening, that was the event in my mind, and in the minds of everyone else in USG, that it’s time for Senator Murray to move on,” he said. “Rather than go to someone in the University administration about it, she ... tries to make it public, which could seriously damage the reputation of the parties involved in the dispute and really violated people’s privacy. It sends a message not only to myself but also the rest of USG and her college council, they were very concerned, and a number of students: How can we trust her?”
Murray said she was performing a service by releasing this information because this offensive action by a senator was something constituents needed to know about. She also said she was impeached because the information harmed Tempe USG’s reputation.
“What I did with the senator was a form of whistleblowing, and I was penalized for it,” she said. “Rather than worrying about what a senator was saying to a student, it was, ‘This makes USG look bad.’”
Murray’s impeachment trial took place at the same senate meeting as Tyo’s resignation, on Oct. 21. The grounds for her impeachment, as stated in a press release issued by USG on Oct. 22, were as follows:
1. Not following clearly stated guidelines and expectations of senators and staff in respect to media contact and relations. a. Including the public release of details concerning a student’s private case being handled by the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. 2. Not performing duties designated to undergraduate student government senators, including attending college council meetings (and if not, maintaining transparent and timely contact) as well as attending committee meetings (and if not, maintaining transparent and timely contact).At the impeachment hearing, many members of minority coalitions filled the room and spoke in Murray’s favor.
Denman of BAC was one of the coalition leaders who supported Murray throughout the impeachment process.
“The powers that be were trying to silence her,” Denman said. “Isabelle does a lot of things that are towards helping marginalized groups on campus, and I don’t really notice USG appreciating that was her mission. I don’t feel she had a chance to have a voice of opinion. No matter what she had done, they were just trying to mute her.”
Smith spoke to the audience at the meeting about making a clear distinction between personal and professional accusations. He said many of the speeches made by the coalitions missed the point of the debate.
“It was all about (how) ‘Isabelle Murray is a wonderful person,’” he said. “We’re not debating whether or not Isabelle Murray is wonderful person; we’re looking at the kind of actions Isabelle Murray took and whether or not they are grounds for impeachment.”
Memorial Union on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. Murray is in the process of appealing her
impeachment. (Photo by Andrew Ybanez)
The senate requires a three-fourths vote to succeed in impeaching a senator and effectively remove them from office. Once points from the audience were heard and the grounds were discussed, the vote was collected via clicker, which is the usual way for senate votes to take place.
However, the clicker system has about a 10- to 15-second delay in collecting the votes, including when a vote is changed. When the vote was collected and time was given for the system to refresh, the clicker system displayed the information that the motion for impeachment was one vote short to pass.
USG Parliamentarian Saumya Gupta then closed the poll and announced the motion had failed. But Gupta said immediately after this announcement the system refreshed again and revealed one vote change had simply not processed yet, and the measure had actually passed.
Someone then called for “division,” Gupta said, which means senators must raise their hands to represent the vote they just cast so as to provide a visual representation.
Gupta said he compared the hand raising with the data collected by the clicker, just to make sure no one changed their votes during division.
“One of the misunderstandings that was common was that we voted twice,” he said. “But that really never happened; it was just division to have a visual representation of who voted, and we checked that with the information in our system.”
However, Murray said there was in fact a revote and the hand-raising likely pressured senators to change their votes to impeachment.
“Clearly, they didn’t want to get their hands dirty, but when they saw that if they didn’t change their vote, I’d still be in senate, they decided to get some courage and change their vote so they didn’t have to deal with me,” she said.
The minutes for the meeting record a “revote,” implying votes could be changed, but Possehl said this is just a secretarial error, because the intern taking the minutes didn’t understand the meaning of the term “division.”
Murray said she plans to use this “revote” as the primary grounds for her appeal of the impeachment, which is being heard Friday by the USG Supreme Court in the Memorial Union. The appeal hearing is open to the public.
With Murray’s removal from the senate, many minority coalition leaders were left without their primary contact in USG.
Possehl said Tempe USG has already begun increasing its collaboration with the coalitions since the impeachment and is hopeful for the future. The senate on Nov. 4 passed the Diversity Bill, which called for an increase in diversity education in ASU 101 classes.
“Our intention for collaborating with them is helping them make waves in our campus culture through education and through action, not just through words,” Possehl said. “We’re also looking at building some different committees to actually build an educational curriculum and training on diversity, to help (the coalitions) in their general exercise to bring larger awareness of cultural differences to campus.”
Denman said it’s still been more difficult to have the BAC’s opinion heard without Murray.
“The Diversity Bill is created now, but it doesn’t have all the things the coalitions would want,” he said. “I definitely think that’s just a way of the USG saying, ‘We’re working with the collations and for diversity.’… But them taking over like that, it seems more like a way for it to come from them rather than students.”
Murray said regardless of whether she is granted her seat in the senate again, she hopes Tempe USG senators will step outside their comfort zones and talk to ASU students with different beliefs and backgrounds from them.
“I think USG has needed a change for a really long time and think this could be the impetus for that change,” she said.
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