After YIRA email, charges dropped

On Feb. 11, the executive board of the Yale International Relations Association — one of the largest student-run undergraduate organizations on campus — sent its members an email alleging that former president Larissa Liburd ’14 had mishandled funds and jeopardized YIRA’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. The statement said board members had referred the issue to the Yale administration for investigation.

Two and a half weeks later, Liburd received notice from the Executive Committee, Yale’s disciplinary body, that the charges against her had been withdrawn after an initial fact-finding effort, exonerating the former president of ExComm-punishable offense before the case went to a disposition — which implies a guilty plea — or a penalty hearing to contest the charges.

“It … was perhaps deemed a matter that did not fit under the ExComm’s jurisdiction,” said a member of ExComm who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The factfinder, [history professor Alan] Mikhail, and [ExComm Secretary] Pamela George make decisions as to whether it is an ExCommable offense — something the student has little control over, once the ball gets rolling.”

Two specific charges against Liburd were withdrawn: mismanagement of funds and falsification of documents, both surrounding Citoyen Haiti, a community service program she organized for the summer of 2013.

“I decided to comply with ExComm because maybe if the Yale administration found I hadn’t done anything wrong, it would make this go away,” Liburd said Tuesday.

The majority of the 2013–’14 YIRA board — including YIRA President Jade Ford ’16 and Vice President Ben Della Rocca ’16 — declined to comment, citing the need to abide by Yale’s undergraduate regulations, but without providing further detail. Alessandra Powell ’16, current executive director and YIRA’s president-elect, declined to comment on the specific details surrounding the February statement.

“I look forward to next year very much, and hope to lead YIRA by learning from the past and improving the community and organization that so many before me have contributed to immensely,” Powell said in an email.

In its Feb. 11 statement, the board alleged that Liburd misinformed them regarding past approval of funding for Citoyen Haiti, which led them to allocate $3,500 for the program. YIRA board members convened beforehand to decide whether or not to release the statement, according to a board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After contentious deliberation, the board voted to send the email to the YIRA community, though the vote was not unanimous. The anonymous board member said those in support of releasing the statement hoped it would further honest and transparent communication with active YIRA membership.

2012–’13 board members Talya Lockman-Fine ’15, Sophia Clementi ’14 and Lizzie Hylton ’15, as well as the anonymous current board member, all agreed that it would have made sense to send another message to members once the charges had been withdrawn, though no second statement has been released.

“If YIRA is going to accuse a former president of something like that in such a public manner, they absolutely need to release a statement saying it was resolved,” Clementi said.

Hylton added that multiple members of the past board have written to current board members requesting such a statement be released, and that current board members have declined to do so.

The statement alleged that the 2013–’14 board agreed to “re-approve” the project under the assumption that the past board had already backed it. However, YIRA members disagreed about whether an initial vote by the 2012–’13 board took place at the organization’s meeting in February 2013. Three members of the board were absent from the meeting, including then-YIRA Secretary Lockman-Fine, who was typically charged with keeping minutes. Liburd said she left the room after presenting her proposal for Citoyen Haiti.

Andrew Fleming ’14, a 2012–’13 board member present at the meeting, said a vote occurred at the February meeting that approved Citoyen Haiti. Clementi, who was present at the meeting as the 2012–’13 executive director, said members “felt positively about the project.” She said she could not remember what exactly was conveyed to Liburd about the project moving forward.

Hylton, who also served on the 2012-’13 board as the head delegate of the Model United Nations team, said she was not present at the meeting but was told afterward that the project had been approved.

“There was definitely the understanding between everyone that we were going forward with Citoyen Haiti,” Hylton said.

But another 2012–’13 YIRA board member present at the February meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there was no vote.

The February statement released to members also claimed that Citoyen Haiti should not have been entitled to YIRA’s 501(c)(3) status because it was approved as an independent initiative and not as a constituent program, which requires a two-thirds majority vote of membership present at YIRA’s annual general elections meeting, according to the policies enumerated on YIRA’s website. But YIRA members past and present disagreed about the distinction between the two types of programs.

Teddy Collins ’13, 2010–’11 president, said it is widely understood that independent initiatives may be funded by YIRA but do not get to claim the organization’s tax-exempt status. His successor, Frankie Costa ’14, said the same. But other past YIRA board members interviewed, including Lockman-Fine and Hylton, argued that it was not widely understood by members of the organization that independent initiatives were ineligible for 501(c)(3) status.

Liburd solicited donations for Citoyen Haiti through a crowdfunding site, claiming 501(c)(3) status. That system sent all donations to YIRA’s bank account, Liburd said, so current board members had to review the money and wire it to Citoyen Haiti.

After expressing concerns over the circumstances surrounding Citoyen Haiti in September, YIRA board members asked Liburd to contact all donors to tell them their contributions were not tax-deductible and remove the YIRA name from the website and other advertisements. Though maintaining that she had authorization to use YIRA’s tax-exempt status, Liburd said she complied because she was confused about the precise legal matters involved and did not want to harm the organization.

Stephen Utz, a law professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law with a specialty in tax law, said YIRA’s 501(c)(3) status did not seem to be jeopardized, because the organization did not authorize any programs that strayed too far from its mission, which is what puts organizations at legal risk, he said. He added that the Internal Revenue Service does not mandate the technical details of an organization’s internal authorization process.

In December, Liburd said she received an email from John Meeske ’74, associate dean for student organizations and physical resources, saying current YIRA board members had raised allegations of fiscal mismanagement against her. A week later, he notified her that the proceedings were being forwarded to ExComm. She met with Dean George in January and decided to file for a hearing, signaling an intent to challenge the charges, she said. Meeske declined to comment.

“My fundamental point throughout is that we’re an extracurricular, a student club,” Liburd said. “We can’t take ourselves too seriously.”

YIRA has nine constituent groups listed in its constitution.

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