SAG election snag tunes into reruns

Election committee throws out Gilbert's victory over Harper

It’s Take 2 for the Screen Actors Guild’s elections.

In an unprecedented step announced Monday evening, the Guild’s election committee threw out Melissa Gilbert’s victory over Valerie Harper, Eugene Boggs and Angeltompkins.

Also to be re-run: Elliott Gould’s win for secretary over Renee Aubrey and Kevin Kilner and Kent McCord’s victory for treasurer over Amy Aquino and Kathleen Haigney.

The panel, which blistered Sequoia Voting Systems and top SAG execs for extensive rule violations, ordered a re-run of the contests with voting set for March 15-April 10.

“It is regrettably the case that all those who ran for office were the innocent victims of these two groups, namely SAG staff and Sequoia representatives,” the panel said. “These problems arose … because SAG senior staff and Sequoia representatives treated the election in New York as an entirely different election that the one in the rest of the country.”

And the decision provoked a bitter debate Tuesday at SAG’s national executive committee over whether Gilbert, Gould and McCord should retain their seats for the next three months. Several NEC members disputed a finding from attorneys hired to advise the elections committee and new SAG General Counsel Mark Steinberg that the NEC could not prevent the trio from staying in office in the interim.

Election committee attorneys George Cohen and Jeffrey Freund told Steinberg that such a step should not be taken “to avoid the undesirable consequence of a void in leadership during the interim period.” They cited the need to be “consistent” with federal labor law — though the labor law deals with elections that the department has ordered — and also said that SAG’s constitution does not provide for this circumstance.

But during the meeting, NEC members pointed out to attorneys that the Constitution Article V stating specifically says the 1st VP (in this case, Mike Farrell) would become acting president in case of a vacancy. “I am baffled that the people who won a messed-up election are seated for the next three months,” NEC member David Jolliffe said.

Jolliffe and other NEC members argued that the election committee’s action had voided the contest for the three officers, thus creating three vacancies. As a result, they claimed, either Farrell or previous president William Daniels should be come acting president.

But despite the arguments, no vote was taken at Tuesday’s meeting. That means Gilbert, Gould and McCord will be able to campaign as incumbents during the next three months.

It was not the first time that SAG attorneys and elected officers have clashed. The elections committee –headed by board member Fred Savage and including members Ninon Aprea, Rick Barker, David Huddleston and Sally Kirkland — had considered stopping the election on Nov. 1 when reports of the violations surfaced but SAG attorneys had told them that they could not do so and said they would instruct staff to override such an action.

In stinging language, the elections committee specifically singled out deputy national exec director John Sucke, national director of guild governance Clinta Dayton and New York branch exec secretary Ruth Baptiste for bungling the election process. And it found that the misconduct may have affected the outcome of the elections.

Integrity question

“We have a serious concern about the short-term and long-term integrity of SAG’s election process,” the panel wrote. “Selecting the top officers who will lead this Union is perhaps the single most important participatory right a member possesses. With this in mind, the Committee has unanimously concluded that the manner in which the election of the three top officers was conducted falls far short of measuring up to the standards of a fair and level playing field which is the cornerstone of the democratic process our members and candidates are entitled to receive.”

“It’s the right decision in light of the abuses that transpired,” said McCord, who won by only 34 votes. “My motive in challenging was to right the wrongs I saw. This is a brave step for the union.”

Key conclusions, reached unanimously by the five-member panel:

  • The staff unfairly took away the committee’s supervisory role of the elections. A day before the Nov. 2 election, the committee had considered impounding the ballots and ordering a re-run, but SAG attorneys said that such a move was not within the committee’s power.

  • The election was run on two different sets of procedures: one for the 24,800 New York members and another for the remaining 73,800 members.

  • SAG staff failed to notify candidates of the two extra days of voting in New York; candidates have claimed they were unable to adjust campaign strategies as a result.

  • Sequoia chose to remove the signature line from the New York ballots despite the requirement in SAG rules that the signature line be included.

    “We cannot place our stamp of approval on the results of a national election in which two separate sets of ground rules were applied to as fundamental an issue as whether to subject members to a signature-line requirement,” the committee said.

SAG national exec director Bob Pisano, who assumed the top post at the Guild seven weeks before the Nov. 2 election, had no comment about the committee’s decision. Treasurer candidate Kathleen Haigney had called two months ago for Pisano to fire Sucke, Dayton and Baptiste over their handling of the election.

Sucke — who was promoted from New York branch exec director in early October — admitted in testimony to the committee last month that he personally approved removing the signature line for the New York ballots but claimed he did not notice the infraction at the time. Sucke testified he had OK’d printer’s proofs in September for 24,800 New York ballots and admitted that he had actively campaigned for removal of the signature line and instructions earlier in the year.

Baptiste, in an echo to Sucke’s testimony, also admitted that she had also approved the proofs in September and had not noticed the removal of the signature line. Sucke and Baptiste blamed Sequoia Voting Systems exec Robbin Johnson for the decision to remove the signature line; Johnson told the committee that part of the reason he had done so was in order to avoid controversy with the “strong personalities” in the N.Y. branch.

Additionally, Sucke testified he had notified Dayton several months before the election about the two extra days for New York voting. The committee also received testimony about emails between Baptiste and Dayton that showed that they were notified by Johnson of the signature line removal on Oct. 16 and then covered up the violation for two weeks until the final days of the election.

SAG board member Gordon Drake, who filed the original pre-election challenge, said the committee’s ruling is “monumental” in detailing staff abuses of the election process.

“This is the whole reason why I got involved in the union in the first place — to return the union to the members,” he said.

The committee, however, turned down challenges to the election of a dozen VP slots. It noted that since those posts are elected on a regional basis, the procedures were consistent; and it found that there was not enough credible evidence to back up four areas — allegations of illegal use of SAG monies and facilities to promote a candidacy; alleged breaches of SAG’s policy of staff neutrality; alleged failure to provide adequate safeguards during balloting; and the impact of the anthrax scare on receiving ballots.

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