Council Candidate Stephens Accused of Harming Organization He Helped Lead

Monday, September 25, 2017, 7:40 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

East Lansing City Council candidate Aaron Stephens has been accused by two fellow MSU students of mismanaging his position as Vice President for Finance of MSU’s model United Nations organization. According to the person who contacted ELi with this story, “he nearly put the organization into financial ruin through neglect.”

ELi was contacted on September 13 by Michael Metiva, now earning his Ph.D. at MSU in Environmental Geosciences. Metiva graduated from MSU with a B.S. degree in Physics and Economics and was elected to take over the Vice Presidency for Finance for MSU International Relations Organization (MSUIRO) after Stephens resigned that position in August 2016 to take a job with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Metiva says that, upon taking over for Stevens, he discovered “nothing was organized or prepared” in terms of the work of VP Finance. For weeks after resigning, Stephens failed to turn over critically important materials in a timely fashion.

Stephens denies he failed to do his job while in the position, but admits he did a poor job helping with the transition. He acknowledges, for example, that he resigned in August but did not return the organization’s checkbook until October.

Emily Weiner, who was MSUIRO’s Vice President for Membership during this period, tells ELi that Stephens’ actions “nearly cost us our status and ability to function on campus, as well as prevent[ing] us from applying for many scholarship/funding opportunities.” Weiner graduated from MSU in May with a B.A. in Elementary Education.

“As a former resident of East Lansing,” she tells ELi, “I think it is important the voters be well-informed.”

Stephens has been unable to refer us to anyone who has held a leadership position in MSUIRO to defend his actions on the record for this story. Two individuals he said would do so in fact would not speak with ELi.

Stephens asked for a meeting with me last Friday and brought Natalie Smith, an MSU junior majoring in International Relations, to support his position. Smith is a member of MSUIRO but lost her bid to be elected to a leadership position in that group.

Smith told me that any struggle faced by the organization because of Stephens’ departure “is the fault of the folks taking over.” Smith has served as President of another registered student organization, The Climate Reality Project Campus Corps.

Metiva says of Natalie Smith, “as far as I know she has shown herself to be a good [MSUIRO] delegate and has demonstrated good leadership in other clubs,” but he says, she doesn’t know what the leadership of MSUIRO went through with Stephens.

Neither Smith nor Stephens disclosed at the meeting they set up with me that Smith is Stephens’ roommate. Asked why they didn’t think it was worth disclosing that, Smith did not respond. Stephens’ campaign manager Emilee Nazareth said it was not disclosed “because you did not ask.”

MSUIRO describes itself as “a competitive collegiate Model United Nations organization that participates in conferences around the continent. We are an undergraduate student organization dedicated to promoting the understanding and recognition of global issues through debate and discussion.” The organization enjoys a strong national reputation and has won many awards.

MSUIRO is led by a President and four Vice Presidents. These positions are filled through membership election in February so that there is ample time for smooth transitions before the start of the academic year in August.

Stephens was elected VP Finance in February 2016. He says he resigned in August 2016, before the semester started. (In response to questions, he has not provided the exact date of his resignation.)

According to Michael Metiva, who was elected VP Finance after Stephens’ departure, Stephens left the organization a “mess…without any explanation or guidance…despite his repeated promises to the contrary. I was disgusted by his behavior.”

Metiva says that “my fellow board members [and I] were surprised at the total lack of preparation on our RHA and ASMSU funding applications…which Aaron claimed he had begun work on. We lost both of those sources [of funding] for the Fall semester and had to wait until the Spring semester to apply as a result of this delay.”

Metiva adds, “The weeks-long delay in handing over the VP of Finance materials compounded the aforementioned fundraising issues.” Says Metiva, “Aaron’s apparent apathy toward the transfer and my position made this impossible as I was essentially without critical knowledge or support for weeks.”

Emily Weiner, who served as VP Membership from February 2015 through February 2017, agrees with Metiva’s assessment of Stephens: “He made large promises during elections, and did not follow through on the basic requirements of the position.”

Weiner says Stephens failed to register MSUIRO as a registered student organization (RSO) on time, “despite reporting at Executive Board meetings that he had done so.” She says, “I took meeting minutes and have notes of his false reports.”

The problems, she said, nearly cost the group its status as an RSO and had a serious impact on providing the typical level of financial aid to members to attend the conferences that form the center of the group’s activities.

“Additionally,” says Weiner, “the way he handled leaving his position was unprofessional and detrimental to the organization.”

Neither Metiva nor Weiner have any problem with the idea of Stephens resigning to take a job with the Clinton campaign. But, says, Weiner, “He then stopped responding to messages, calls, and emails.”

Stephens strongly denies that he failed to do his job before resignation: “To my knowledge, I was not required to fundraise over the summer. I was waiting until the next school year started to apply for funds. This was what previous people in my position had done.”

He adds, “I realize that I should have expedited the handover of the items in my possession. For that delay, I apologize.”

Stephens checked his phone records at our in-person interview and said that he resigned in August and turned over the last of the materials—the checkbook—on about October 10.

At our interview last week, held at Stephens’ request, Stephens and Natalie Smith insisted that everything MSUIRO would have needed to manage the transition—short of the checkbook—was available to them through online resources and through ASMSU. They say those remaining in leadership positions could have looked it all up.

Said Stephens, “I absolutely did not mismanage that office. I did what was required of me.”

Asked why no one in the leadership of MSUIRO would support his version of events, including two people he said would vouch for him, Stephens said, “I don’t understand why they will not talk to you.”

Said Natalie Smith at our interview, “I think the organization was let down, but not by Aaron, by themselves.” She added, “It was an unfortunate situation, but they didn’t need to turn it into blaming and act the way they did.”

Asked why he contacted ELi with this story, Metiva said he was doing so “mainly to make sure that the voters know who is running for office and his track record of leadership in the past. I don’t think that it’s fair to not do your job and expect to not face any consequences, especially if you’re trying to make a career as a public servant.”

Asked why she provided ELi with her experiences, Weiner responded, “In my opinion, Aaron saw his position as VP Finance as a stepping stone to the next, better position, and I would guess that is how he views the City Council position as well.”

Weiner added, “Aaron is, in my opinion, enormously self-interested, and thus will not look out for what is best for East Lansing and its residents.”

For his part, Stephens says, “I love this city, I won’t be leaving anytime soon, win or lose this election. I would rather talk about how we can improve our relationship with the university, create a more vibrant downtown, and address other issues that our residents have.”

Stephens is one of three people running for two open four-year spots on City Council. ELi has also received complaints about candidate Susan Woods and will be covering that story later this week. We have not received any complaints about candidate Ruth Beier.

Update: Click here to read the report on charges made against Woods.