Scamming Sudler

Beyond New Haven, lying about a company’s financial activities has landed hundreds of white-collar criminals massive fines and jail time. Among Yale’s thespians, lying about the use of Sudler money has become an easy way to increase production budgets for expensive shows.

And it’s no wonder, since the application requires only a half-page form and a one-page essay — maximum. The short, simple application is meant to encourage the greatest number of students to bring innovative art into the residential colleges. But attempts by several artists to cheat the application process now threaten to increase administrators’ scrutiny of illicit Sudler spending.

One of the most egregious incidents of alleged Sudler deceit to come to light involves a prominent campus organization known for their professionally shot independent movies. Members of Bulldog Productions are suspected of receiving numerous Sudler grants to fund a single project, which is prohibited by the published guidelines of the grant. In addition, they reportedly asked friends to submit sham applications for projects whose funding would be diverted to Bulldog Productions.

Current Bulldog Productions president Eset Akcilad ’07, who took office in October 2005, said that to his knowledge the group never misappropriated Sudler money. The investigation of the group is connected to a former board member who is accused of illegally using Sudler funds, Akcilad said.

“Our name got dragged into the whole mess with him,” Akcilad said.

Akcilad said he had no knowledge of the group’s financial activities before he became president, but the organization is cooperating with administrators. He said the organization’s registration is temporarily on hold while the investigation proceeds.

Branford Master Steven Smith confirmed that Bulldog Productions is linked to misleading applications that were submitted to the Sudler Committee, which reviews all candidates for grants.

“To some extent, we have presupposed the basic honesty of the people who were applying,” Smith said. “Now we find out that we can’t presuppose that, and we’ll have to review the application [process], I presume.”

But the Bulldog Productions case is only the most recent and most serious in a pattern of attempts to misrepresent intentions behind Sudler projects.

One student involved in a large Sudler-funded exhibition that took place this year said her organization used four grants from different residential colleges to amass a budget more than twice what Sudler estimates such a project should cost. Individual artists affiliated with the show applied separately from the overall producers to get grants for their creations, which were then displayed in small shows in addition to the large exhibition.

“No one’s really sure whether this is crossing the line,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about administrative repercussions.

After all, she said, the exhibit needed more than the maximum Sudler allotment of $1,000 for their project. The show fulfilled the purpose of the Sudler fund by creating an arts exhibition that took place inside a residential college, so it seemed to be within the spirit of the rules, she said.

Still, the student admitted, “It makes me a little queasy.”

Requesting multiple grants for one project appears to be somewhat routine in the arts and theater community at Yale, although students distinguish what is standard from the scale of Bulldog Productions’ activities. Ted Gordon ’08 said he was involved in a Sudler-funded show last year where the costume designer got a separate $200 grant from her residential college for the costumes used in the production. She put on a display of the costumes in the college to satisfy the terms of the grant, although the garments were primarily created for the purpose of the theater production.

“Once we had the show going … all of the actors romped around Stiles for awhile in their costumes,” Gordon said.

Gordon said theatrical shows often run over budget, and while some masters are willing to use discretionary funds from the college to supplement a production budget, others are less willing to do so. He said he thinks asking for a small additional Sudler for costumes has become a “routine” way to supplement the budget.

But residential college masters who administer Sudler funding give no latitude to students who may think it is legitimate to apply for multiple grants for one project.

“A project is for one person,” Smith said. “You can’t apply to multiple colleges for each one to essentially pay a piece of the project.”

The Sudler guidelines define categories of projects that are eligible for funding and set up maximum awards for each category. For example, a theatrical production can receive up to $1,200, while a concert only qualifies for $500.

Berkeley Master John Rogers said the original Sudler endowment was created to help individual artists working within a residential college, not Yale College-wide projects. Although large productions like plays may demand contributions — even acting or directing — from outside the college, the locus of the energy for the project should be the sponsoring college, Rogers said.

The Sudler application asks students to mark if they are applying to multiple colleges’ Sudler funds, but students who are honest about their plans will only get one grant, Rogers said. Groups that have gotten multiple Sudlers have mischaracterized their plans on applications, he said.

“I think it’s increasingly coming to the attention of the masters, the extent to which the Sudler fund is being abused by groups of students involved in massive and elaborate projects,” Rogers said.

Judith Krauss, the master of Silliman College and chair of the Council of Masters, said the council is now reviewing the processes for application, proposal review and reimbursement, as well as procedures to insure that projects are completed as proposed. One component of the revised process will be the inclusion of a statement that must be signed by the project proposer attesting to the validity of the project, she said. Krauss noted that violations of the new Sudler procedures will be referred to the Executive Committee for review.

Rogers said masters are already increasingly aware of the problem. “I think all of the masters are going out of their way to make sure the applications they are getting are not merely sham proposals that are actually attempting to get money for a project that’s not actually the one described on the application,” he said.

But students have used the Sudler fund in other ways that fall outside the rules or in loopholes created by the short list of guidelines for Sudler work. Several students involved in Sudler shows said artistic necessity rather than a desire to defraud the endowment fueled some rule-breaking.

Jess Heyman ’07, who has been involved either as a producer or in another capacity in more than two dozen Sudler shows, said the fund’s rules prohibit some necessary spending, which encourages producers to find ways to break the rules. Sudler will not pay for any food, even props that may be integral to the plot of a play. And producers are expected to provide coffee and donuts for the crew at load-in for a show, which typically occurs early Sunday morning, she said. At the end of the day, a student has to cough up the cash for the props and the donuts — an expense that can encourage attempts to trick the reimbursement process.

“There’s definitely been cases that I’m aware of where people have turned in other receipts for things so that it all makes sense,” Heyman said.

For students in the art major — where supplies for a single class can cost $1,000 in a semester — a Sudler show is a quick way to recover some of the costs of the major, said a sophomore painting major, who asked not to be identified because she plans to apply for future grants.

“I don’t feel bad, and I don’t think the work that I’m making for an art class is less valid or less deserving of being seen than something someone is doing in their common room late at night,” she said.

The Sudler Committee reviews applications to make sure that equipment purchases — which students might keep after a production ends — are not funded by the grants, Rogers said. When the equipment is paint and paintbrushes, which might be used in a Sudler show that was genuinely motivated by a desire to bring the arts into a residential college, monitoring is more difficult. But the committee is working to stamp out such “cynical” practices, he said.

“I think that falls into the category of fraud,” Rogers said.

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