By Danielle Ohl, Talia Richman, Ellie Silverman and Jessica Campisi
Senior staff writers
Unity Party leaders accepted donations from a conservative nonprofit in the form of various logo designs and did not include the contributions on SGA election financial reports, according to documents obtained by The Diamondback on Wednesday.
The Unity Party ticket accepted campaign materials and support from affiliates of Turning Point USA — a group that aims to encourage conservative students to run for student government positions — in a way that violates University of Maryland Student Government Association election rules. A Turning Point graphic designer sent Unity Party logos to coworkers in March, the emails show.
The logos displayed in the emails sent by Turning Point members are the same ones now printed on Unity Party T-shirts, used on social media platforms and on signs displayed along McKeldin Mall.
Accepting donations and failing to disclose them on the party's finance report is a violation of the SGA's campaign finance regulations, which prohibit accepting undisclosed financial or material support. The rules also prohibit accepting donations from a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
If anyone were to submit a complaint about undisclosed aid to the Unity Party, the five-member Election Board would open a formal investigation, said board chair Justin Edelman after reviewing the documents.
"The investigation would require us to collect all relevant documentation and conduct several interviews. If the election board finds that any rules were violated, we would collectively decide on an appropriate punishment," the senior government and politics major said. "This could range from fines to disqualification."
Turning Point is a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 with the mission of "identifying, organizing, and empowering young people to promote the principles of free markets, and limited government." The group, which has attempted to influence college elections across the country, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Unity Party financial affairs vice presidential candidate Ryan Walsh told The Diamondback that Turning Point did not contribute funds toward the Unity Party ticket, but it did graphic design work pro bono.
Unity Party presidential candidate Kay Barwell wrote in a statement that her fiance's cousin, Laura Beckwith, has a private graphic design business and is a graphic designer with Turning Point, according to her LinkedIn page.
Beckwith offered to design Unity Party graphics for free, but "accidentally sent the logo designs" through her Turning Point-affiliated email address, according to Barwell's statement. Barwell, a junior communication major, wrote that Turning Point heard about the campaign through Beckwith and "approached us. However, we felt uncomfortable with their offer and we didn't accept it."
This contradicts documents obtained by The Diamondback, which show that Beckwith sent two Turning Point affiliates emails about the Unity Party logo on two separate dates. The documents also reference a meeting between Unity Party candidates and Turning Point members.
Barwell did not answer repeated phone calls, voicemails and text messages from The Diamondback, with questions about additional ties to Turning Point and the party failing to disclose contributions in the preliminary report. Beckwith also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Walsh, a sophomore finance major, said the Unity Party did not accept any money from Turning Point, adding that doing so would have been "corrupt."
When approached by a Diamondback reporter, Walsh did not seem to realize parties needed to disclose non-monetary contributions to the SGA Elections Board and expressed dismay upon learning of the oversight.
"So yeah, I guess that would be a bit of an issue then if we didn't disclose that," Walsh said, referring to the designs by Beckwith.
Students with no prior SGA experience are fronting the Unity Party ticket, which now has 11 members.
Edelman said election rules and regulations were discussed at three information sessions. The rules have been online since January, he said, and the rule prohibiting donations from a nonprofit organization is bolded.
"We make ourselves continuously available by email for any questions that may arise," Edelman said. "One of the things we repeatedly emphasize is, ask us a question before you do something or check the election rules."
Mihir Khetarpal, the One Party's ticket chair, called Turning Point's connection "concerning."
"It's not just that they're receiving the support from Turning Point, they haven't been transparent about the support," the junior economics government and politics major said. "And it really threatens to undermine the whole SGA election process."
When asked about the Turning Point connection, Bryce Iapicca, a Unity Party candidate for an Off-Campus — Neighboring legislative position, said he had decided to drop out of the race after hearing the allegations.
"Based on information that has come to fruition it is evident that the Unity Party is somewhat connected to Turning Point USA," Iapicca wrote in his resignation email to the election board on Wednesday night. "I do not think SGA elections are meant to be partisan, and the idea is the make all of UMD better off. There should be no republicans or democrats [sic] and there should most certainly be no special interests."
March emails show Beckwith discussing the logo designs with Haeli Mouré, a leadership development director with Turning Point, and another person affiliated with the Campus Leadership Project. The organization is a Turning Point initiative and focuses on "training a new generation of common sense, representative and well-equipped leaders" on college campuses, according to its website.
Beckwith emailed Mouré and another coworker and wrote: "Here are assets for UMD as I could do currently, if you have any additional info for flyers or palm cards that they'd like, please let me know!"
Mouré did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment, nor did the Campus Leadership Project.
Unity Party ticket chair Katie Albert communicated with Mouré via email about the election as early as November, the documents show. But mentions of Turning Point's involvement on the campus date back to December 2015, according to the obtained documents, when former UMD College Republicans President Breyer Hillegas sent a message over his group's listserv advertising the opportunity to work with the nonprofit.
"Anyone who wants to run for SGA president, Turning Point is offering to pay thousands of dollars (literally) to your campaign to help get a conservative into the position," he wrote in an listserv message.
Hillegas, who has since graduated, confirmed Turning Point reached out to him in 2015. He said no one responded to his message or pursued the relationship with Turning Point at that time. Mouré also reached out to College Republicans in October. They did not respond to the email, said College Republicans Chairman Jacob Veitch, who is running on the opposing One Party ticket.
"It is unacceptable for campaigns to be supported monetarily or otherwise, by outside organizations," Veitch wrote in a statement.
Three of the Unity Party's four executive candidates contributed a total of $1,800 to the ticket — $600 each, the maximum contribution for their positions, according to the April 9 preliminary report. Each of the Unity Party contributions were made on the same day, Feb. 15.
The Unity Party has spent $196.71, primarily on art supplies, candy and name tags, according to the report. The spending cap is $2,000, according to SGA rules, and the final finance report is due April 21.
Turning Point set aside funding for a student government campaign at Ohio State University following exchanges between candidates and group organizers in January, according to a February story in The Lantern, Ohio State's student newspaper. The conservative organization has more than 300 chapters on campuses nationwide, including at all but three Big Ten schools.
"We make these rules in order to ensure a fair election," said current SGA President Katherine Swanson. "When people break those rules, that gives them an unfair advantages and ruins the whole idea of a fair election process."
Voting in the SGA election will take place between April 19 and April 21, and the executive candidate debate is scheduled for Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Reckord Armory.
Staff writer Carly Taylor contributed to this report.