Leaked Agnihotri/Fleming GroupMe Messages Contain Potential Election Code Violations
Story reported by Elissa Hill, disclaimer written by Onward State’s editorial staff.
The Underground, a student-run media site focused on multiculturalism, published an article Thursday containing leaked GroupMe messages from the Divy Agnihotri and Megan Fleming UPUA campaign that may include serious election code violations, but at the very least give some insight into what appears to be a tumultuous race. Agnihotri and Fleming are running for president and vice president of the student body against current UPUA vice president Terry Ford and his running-mate At-Large Rep. Katie Jordan.
The screenshots included group-message threads titled “Make Penn State Great Again” and “For The Win,” which contained conversations from both Agnihotri and Fleming as well as their campaign staff and others, including intensely negative remarks about the opponent, among other potential campaign violations.
Agnihotri (GroupMe alias “D”) referred to Ford as an “elitist fuck.” Fleming (GroupMe alias “Joe Paterno”) claimed that she was “going to make Katie [Jordan] cry in the debate.” UPUA Rep. Adam Taragnoli (GroupMe alias “A”) said Ford will need to “go back to being a filthy fucking casual unable to suck off administrators anymore.” Shannon Rafferty (GroupMe alias “S”), former UPUA Rep. and Agnihotri/Fleming staffer asked “Who sucked the most administrative dick that week,” to which UPUA Rep. and Agnihotri/Fleming staffer Abby Baker (GroupMe alias “AB”) responded “Ryan did. Ryan always sucks a lot of dick,” presumably referring to UPUA Governmental Affairs Chair Ryan Valencia, who has endorsed the Ford/Jordan ticket.
Agnihotri, Fleming, and their staffers also discussed planting negative articles about their opponents on this website. Fleming, speaking about an underage drinking charge Ford received last fall, wrote: “Info like that is stuff I could plant through [an Onward State editor] if need be to add as an anecdote in our analysis of the candidates.” Agnihotri responded to the news that Onward State would not be making an endorsement due to a conflict of interest this election as “fucked up.” There was also a short conversation about “digging up dirt” to “take down” one of our editors who has endorsed the Ford/Jordan campaign. The campaign also discussed recruiting former UPUA Rep. (and Penn State Students for Trump President) Ryan Belz and former UPUA Speaker John Wortman to draft an op-ed to submit it to Onward State and then deny involvement with its submission. We take these allegations very seriously and address our role this election in full at the end of this article.
Per the UPUA elections code, candidates face violations if they “make defamatory remarks in the public about another candidate, or encourag[e] others to make such remarks.”
It is clear that the Agnihotri campaign was aware of this rule when these messages were sent. Agnihotri/Fleming campaign staffer and current UPUA Rep. Alexandra Leventis (GroupMe alias “L”) wrote: “also we have to be very careful about the defamation remarks clause in the elections code.” Agnihotri responded: “Do defamatory remarks result in fine or expulsion?” He answered his own question, in a sense: “Defamation only deals with untrue statements, we only speak the truth.”
UPUA Tweeted Thursday night that the Election Commission is “reviewing all possible violations of the election code and a statement will be made when completed.” UPUA also Tweeted: “The UPUA is aware of the recent blog post and we are looking into it now. We’re investigating and will provide updates when possible.”
“We’re allowed to say whatever we want,” Agnihotri said when reached by phone Thursday after the Underground article was published. “All those messages, like we said, were said in confidence, and we have no idea what they’re saying about us, so understand this is only one side of the story.”
“It was a confidential GroupMe,” Agnihotri said. “We want to emphasize that these were private messages, and were selectively chosen by The Underground…and that’s something that we’re gonna fight against…Our GroupMe that was posted on The Underground’s website was very selective. It had about 42 pages on the site, and there had to be hundreds of pages in [the thread].”
The GroupMe messages also report additional allegations against Ford, including a message from Baker, who says that alleged harassment from Ford caused her to pull back her involvement in UPUA.
“Terry threatened me in my own home and yelled at me to the point that I was genuinely afraid. After I literally ran to my bedroom and locked the doors he broke the lock on my bedroom door and forced his way in,” Baker wrote. “Then I told Emily a few days later and she told me basically there was nothing she could do about it while I cried to her and told her I no longer feel comfortable in the UPUA office and I didn’t feel comfortable around Terry.”
When presented with this alleged situation, Ford responded: “That is absolutely not true. I did not force myself into her room. I did not threaten her in any way. My take on the situation is that she’s exaggerating things right before the election in order to paint a negative picture of me. I’ve heard from a number of people that she has been communicating that to them in order to, again, paint me in a negative light.”
“It’s obvious that this was said in a private group chat in confidence, and I had absolutely no reason to lie,” Baker said when reached Thursday night. “I will not comment further on the issue, except for the fact that I am exploring the options available to me, which speaks to the validity of what I have said.”
Ford later sent a statement to Onward State saying: “Abby and I have agreed to drop this issue and move forward on good terms.”
The Agnihotri/Fleming campaign released a statement on its campaign Facebook after the article was published, refusing to back down from the statements.
“The election code is very clear that the ideas are not violations, and that’s something that we really need to stress,” Agnihotri said. “The ideas that were placed in the GroupMe and were highlighted on the coverage — we did not act on any of them.”
Other less serious violations may also exist, including early campaigning.
The earliest leaked Agnihotri/Fleming ticket GroupMe messages begin on February 28, about two weeks before campaigning was permitted to begin per the UPUA election code. Many campaigns begin their infrastructure before the official campaigning period, but the Agnihotri/Fleming ticket had already begun discussing potential endorsements by February 28. “The election code makes it clear that ideas are not violations, and that’s something we need to stress,” Agnihotri said. “Those ideas that were highlighted in the coverage, we did not act upon any of those.”
Article 4.8 of the election code states that candidates are permitted during the Registration Period (Feb. 22-March 4) to “speak freely regarding their intent to run for office” and “[seek] a campaign staff and [organize] campaign plans”; the parent article of those clauses notes that it’s “provided that such acts do not overtly constitute campaigning.”
Article 5.1 of the election code says:
Campaigning shall be defined as any action undertaken by a candidate or on behalf of a candidate by a campaign staff member or an individual or entity which endorsed said candidate, that in a public manner deliberately or inadvertently:
5.1.1 Increases recognition of a candidate’s name or platform among some or all members of the student body.
5.1.2 Displays or distributes any information about the candidate or the position for which he or she is a candidate.
The Elections Commission will need to determine how the code applies to these messages. It is uncharted territory, as private messages made public by the media have never been considered by the commission in UPUA history. This is the first year that the judicial board will serve as UPUA’s Elections Commission, a change from an Assembly confirmed group of outgoing UPUA leaders and other students.
When the GroupMe was created, the members changed their names to initials or aliases, which Agnihotri explained was to protect the ticket and the members it added.
“[Using aliases] was to make sure that anyone on Terry’s campaign that happened to be looking over anyone’s shoulder wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh hey, why are you talking in this GroupMe? Why are you talking to Divy?’ or something like that,” Agnihotri explained when reached by phone after The Underground article was published. “That was not done in a malicious manner.”
A confidant of the Agnihotri/Fleming campaign who was in the groups at some point presumably leaked these premature GroupMe messages to The Underground.
“’Make Penn State Great Again’ started out with four or five people,” Agnihotri explained. “As time progressed, we added more and more, so yes, it was someone that we thought was on our team, but we’re not sure exactly who it was, but it was someone who was made available to both GroupMes.”
It has been speculated that Agnihotri and Fleming could face hefty fines from UPUA for possible violations. Each presidential ticket is allowed to spend up to $600 each campaign. All fines are counted toward that $600 limit. For example, if the campaign spent $500 and received $101 in fines for election code violations, that $601 would put the campaign over the limit resulting in a disqualification.
GroupMe messages indicate that Agnihotri and Fleming reached out to potential election allies to offer them chair positions in UPUA if their campaign were to be successful, presumably in exchange for individual endorsements. At-large Reps. Anthony Mitchell and Jorge Zurita-Coronado were reportedly offered chair positions to support the Divy-Fleming ticket (Mitchell ultimately endorsed Ford). Chair positions are elected internally by the assembly, but an executive endorsement goes a long way in the selection.
“I am disappointed in what I read today,” Ford said. “I am disappointed to see that certain individuals were willing to say things that I find to be hurtful, both towards myself, towards friends of mine, and towards the organization. I think a number of things in the GroupMe messages were perhaps a bit exaggerated, including some of the things about myself, but on the whole, and I guess the moral where I stand right now is that I’m disappointed.”
The Agnihotri camp continued to defend itself during our brief interview with the ticket Thursday night.
“The Underground did not reach out to us for comment and failed to report that they were publishing an incomplete story,” Fleming said.
“[This leak] implicates both parties, and UPUA as a whole, so this is something that is beyond just myself and Megan,” Agnihotri said.
“My hope is that this [situation] does not paint UPUA in a bad light. The last thing I want is for our progress to be eliminated, and for people not to trust the UPUA any longer because of the actions and the words of a few individuals,” Ford said. “I have full confidence going forward that the Divy-Fleming campaign will act in an ethical and responsible manner…I hope for a spirited and fair campaign going forward as I’m sure they do as well.”
Update 10:30 a.m.: Agnihotri provided the following statement: “Megan and I take full responsibility for what we said and the actions of our campaign. We apologize both for what we said, the implications this has brought on both tickets, and for the impact what we said has on UPUA as a whole.”
A Statement On Onward State’s Involvement
In light of this situation, we would like to reaffirm our staff’s commitment to impartiality throughout the UPUA election. Candidate Megan Fleming has not contributed to Onward State in any capacity, including writing or editing, since she made the editorial staff aware of her intent to run for UPUA Vice President, as outlined in our disclaimer from last week. We want to assure the Penn State community that we stand by our commitment to balanced reporting, specifically in this UPUA election process. To reiterate, Megan Fleming is not a member of our staff and has not attempted to “feed” us stories.
Regarding allegations contained within the GroupMe messages that Fleming and other members of the campaign were planning to push for negative coverage of their opponents: We received no such request, but if we had, we would not have allowed it. Onward State, under then-Managing Editor Megan Fleming, chose not to report on Terry Ford’s underage drinking charge when it hit our radar last fall because it is not our typical practice to report about common, low-misdemeanor college crimes unless there is something about the incident that makes it unique (there was nothing unique in this case). Onward State decided not to report on the charge at the time of the incident in compliance with this precedent. We would not even be mentioning it now if it wasn’t already part of the widely read Underground story.
The screenshots provided to The Underground also highlight a message referring to Onward State’s recap of the March 3 UPUA meeting. The message from Baker said: “Read the OS article! No one cares about UPUA but it mentions that Katie messed up.” We insist that our reporting was not biased against Jordan. Our post fairly commented on and analyzed the events of the meeting and the actions of Jordan, Samantha Bentrim, and Valencia with no emphasis on any one representative.
As an organization, we hold our editors and staff writers to the highest standard of integrity such that Fleming would not have any opportunity to “plant ideas” through our editors in order to advance their campaign ticket. Again, we take this principle extremely seriously.
Additionally, current Onward State staff member and at-large UPUA Rep. Steffen Blanco, who is mentioned in the GroupMe messages, is not and has never been involved in our UPUA election coverage.
If you have any questions about this statement or any of our coverage of the 2016 UPUA elections, please email our editorial staff at [email protected] or leave a comment.