This week, Bloomberg News has published two lengthy pieces about the government relations program of the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition (FGRC), which is comprised of the North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC), the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), and The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (FSPAC). The initial Bloomberg piece generated a great deal of other media attention this week.
Over the last few months a number of interfraternal leaders were contacted by Bloomberg News seeking interviews about the FGRC and the FSPAC and our work together in Washington.
We asked our lead lobbyist in Washington, Kevin O’Neill of Patton Boggs, to be the FGRC spokesperson with Bloomberg. Kevin spoke with the Bloomberg reporter five times over two days in May and June for of total of approximately 90 minutes.
We all know that media coverage of fraternities often relies on use of sensationalist narratives and clichés because a balanced examination of the issues requires more work for the reporter. We think the Bloomberg News articles this week were slanted and unfair, especially the article regarding the FGRC’s role in potential for federal hazing legislation. Rather than let the facts dictate the story, the Bloomberg reporter had a slant and omitted all facts that ran contrary to that viewpoint.
We write today to provide you with a more complete summary of our conversations with the Bloomberg reporter because they better demonstrate what we are doing in Washington. Below this letter is a summary which outlines our concerns with the Bloomberg articles and offers you a sampling of some of the material we provided to the reporter that was omitted from the stories.
We are rightly proud of the FGRC’s efforts to be the voice for the policy needs of our students and alumni/alumnae members. Our voice is making a difference and being attacked in print like this is actually a particularly acute sign of our relevance in policy debates.
As needed, we would be happy to discuss our work in Washington in greater detail with the leaders of your organizations.
Cindy Stellhorn, President
Fraternity & Sorority Political Action Committee
• O’Neill to Reporter: “We think that if somebody’s has been harmed the police need to be involved and the student judicial process, the campus judicial process, that’s not the right place for this, and the same is true in a lot of different instances. If somebody’s been physically harmed we want the law enforcement authorities to aggressively pursue that.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “We’ve testified and worked very aggressively in any number of states over the years to make sure that where hazing has led to physical harm, the people that have engaged in that conduct are subject to the full extent of criminal liability.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “The position of the fraternity world has always been that if someone has been physically harmed then the appropriate mechanism is for that is to go through the state criminal process.”
• A proposed new federal law would possibly allow a campus judicial process outcome to be used to deny students access to financial aid for incidents where insufficient evidence exists for criminal charges to be brought by law enforcement.
• The students involved in the Carrington hazing incident were not members of a fraternity recognized by the campus or a national fraternal organization. They were the remains of an organization that had been closed four years prior by a national fraternity for violations of the group’s alcohol policy. The university had also dropped its organizational recognition four years before the incident and had pursued steps to stop the group from operating after loss of recognition.
• Two years before the death, the campus IFC had taken the unusual step of pursuing an action with the local city council to force the organization to stop calling itself a fraternity and take down any symbols because the group was not recognized and adhered to no rules.
• The actions taken by the national organization and campus in closing the chapter and ending recognition of activities, taken four years before the death of Adam Carrington, are exactly the type of proactive steps critics of fraternities have long recommended for problem groups.
• Bloomberg did not question the FGRC about the Carrington case. We have never mentioned this incident in our lobbying efforts.
• Eight students were criminally charged in this case and one appears to have been convicted of a felony and given a sentence of one year.
• O’Neill to Reporter: “We agree on the goal, we agree on a lot of the substance, we disagree on the method there [the legislation].”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “We’ve had a series on ongoing conversations with Congresswoman Wilson, as I would describe just as I say here [referring to an FGRC memo reporter was quoting from], cordial and productive and you know just as the legislative process is intended we’ve spent some time getting educated about her perspective on these issues and we’ve spent some time talking to her about what we do on these issues where we see problems and what not and those conversations continue as needed. Our hope would be, just like any association, our hope would be when there’s legislation that’s developed that impacts our members that we have a seat at the table and can do what we can to make sure that legislation is effective as possible.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “I mean we went in and met with the Congresswoman on a couple of occasions, and brought in the national leaders from the North American Interfraternity Conference and National Panhellenic Conference to speak with her. We had a separate conference call that involved some college presidents and vice-presidents of student relations to chat with her about the way discipline was handled on campuses and what some of the real life implications might be of trying to implement the law as initially conceived or as it was sort of being reported at that time. And again, I thought the Congresswoman while she clearly has a prospective on where she would like to get, I thought she was really very, very generous with the time and effort that she put into listening to others on this and to hearing all perspectives and trying to understand what would – we all have the same goal which is stamp out hazing and make sure that anyone that is involved in that is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “She has a great – I don’t know how much you’ve looked into her history, but she was very instrumental when she was a state office holder in the Florida State House in passing a law named for a gentleman who died in a hazing incident.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “So it’s obviously something she’s very well acquainted with as well as from her own sorority experience. And like I said, she has been terrific to work with because she’s interested in getting – we’re all interested to the same finish line and she has been really good about listening to people and continuing to learn more and figure out what we could all do together.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “So Congresswoman Wilson has a very unique and strong background from her days both as a state representative in Florida and her own national volunteer efforts as a volunteer leader of her sorority in fighting hazing…”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “So we’ve talked to her several times, and she has some ideas for developing a bill, she’s got some hurdles to jump to get it there, we have slightly different perspectives, her perspective is that some of the state stuff hasn’t been as effective as possible. Our perspective is that this is probably best dealt with at the state level.”
• In the Wednesday article, Congresswoman Wilson herself is quoted as saying “fraternities didn’t block” introduction of her bill.
• Virtually every other organization quoted in Wednesday’s article echoes the FGRC’s position that there are substantive hurdles that must be carefully addressed before introducing federal hazing legislation if the goal is to ultimately pass such legislation.
• Other interest groups have also told the Congresswoman that the fight against hazing might be most effective at the state level.
• O’Neill to Reporter: “While we’ve not taken a position on whether or not hazing should result in you losing your federal financial aid, we have taken the position that if you are going to have that sort of sanction, it should go through a criminal process rather than through the quasi-judicial process that most campuses engage in in disciplining students. And I think she [Congresswoman Wilson] understands that. We’ve had a lot of good back and forth on that issue. I get the sense we are not the only organization or organizations that have had that conversation with her and made a similar point about it.
• O’Neill to Reporter: “When we last talked to her early in the  session her plan was to still be working to bring that to the finish line. I know that she’s had some challenges in talking to some folks. She’s got some challenges in getting something that works at the Federal level. There have been previous efforts to sort of federalize hazing in other Congresses years ago, and they did not succeed and I think she is trying to figure out where she can avoid the mistakes that they made in the past.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “When last we talked to her she is continuing to look at what she can do on that and she knows that we are anxious to, where appropriate, be her partner in making sure that hazing is eradicated on campus.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “The North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, they spend more money than anybody on fighting hazing year after year. They probably spend more time educating students about that. And there are lots of other organizations - bands, athletic teams, clubs - where the fight for hazing isn’t been engaged and that problem persists throughout the campus.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “I think the data that I’ve seen from a couple of the hazing websites it that 40 some odd states have a law on the books that make hazing a criminal activity of one sort or another. We would certainly like to see it be all fifty states, and whether or not an individual state has a criminal law that makes hazing specifically defined as a criminal activity, certainly anytime you are talking about a physical assault on a student, that all 50 states have crimes against that regardless of the age of the perpetrator or the offender, and the position of the fraternity world has always been that if someone has been physically harmed then the appropriate mechanism is for that is to go through the state criminal process.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “So I’m guessing, but I don’t have any reason to know this for certain, that perhaps in those states [that don’t make hazing a crime] they’ve just decided that’s redundant. But the fact is the vast majority of states, more than 80% by my count have a statute against hazing in one form or another and our position is we’d like it to be all 50 states.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “We think that we would rather see this done at the state level, we think that we’ve got real due process concerns with taking things through a university system that doesn’t necessarily. And the thought is if you’re going to lose your federal financial aid forever that requires a pretty strict standard of due process that can be met most easily by running it through the traditional court system as opposed to a student judicial process that was never intended to make decisions of that consequence that impact students.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “I think anytime you’re going to make a decision that impacts a student’s ability to continue in school, which obviously taking away their federal financial aid does just that, that you need to make sure you’ve accorded them as much due process as is practicable and there are very few things, I don’t know if you’ve done the research on this, but there are very few things that you lose your federal financial aid for under current law.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “We believe that the states are adequately dealing with the incidents of hazing that occur and we have been partners as appropriate with state and local government in prosecuting incidents of hazing and we spent more time, money and effort than anybody else in educating students and organizations about the ills of hazing and how to fight it.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “We’ve fought very hard to put a lot of teeth into those state laws and if you look historically we think they’ve been in most cases they’ve been effective.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “If you just look back historically, which is really hard to do in state legislative proceedings, you’ll see that fraternities and sororities have always led the fight to basically say hey this should be, if somebody is hazed and somebody has been physically hurt by another student that is appropriate for the state to take criminal action, we’ve always supported that.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “There is no doubt that the bill can be used to help people build new housing that the capacity argument and the need to increase capacity is a compelling one and that’s certainly the way the bill was intended. There are lots of smaller organizations, younger organizations that haven’t been around for decades that want to build not-for-profit housing for their students and this would help level the playing field for them.”
• The reporter was not invited to the dinner and never set foot inside the event ballroom where the remarks were made.
• We have contested each quote attributed to the dinner.
• Out of a three hour dinner with nearly 20 Congressional speakers, all of whom spoke warmly and personally about the positive impact of fraternity life on American society and politics, the reporter chose only to quote one joke made by a Congressman and one statement of support for our legislative agenda by a second Congressman.
• O’Neill to Reporter: “You know actually the number one thing that we are working on right now is preserving the full value of charitable contributions to organizations like ours. We are part of a coalition that is working on charitable giving and we probably spend as much time on that as anything else because our fear is that there have been proposals to reduce the value of charitable giving and entities like ours may be disproportionately impacted by that if people choose to cut back the number of entities and the amount that they spend on charitable support.”
• O’Neill to Reporter: “I think we’re working more actively on a wide variety of issues, we care about college affordability that’s where things like CHIA come in, we care about safety that’s where CHIA and anti-hazing stuff come in, we care about preserving the future of our organizations which is why preserving the value of charitable giving is also so important. We care about freedom of association and students' rights issues. We haven’t been as visible on that yet but I’d suspect that’s something that does come up when the higher Ed reauthorization comes around, so we’re obviously entering that period where we will be doing some talking to folks. We continue to think that it’s important that students be able to join the organizations they want and have the full range of first amendment protections during their college experience - Freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. We certainly believe that students have a right to assemble and associate in a way that they see fit and that history shows that students being involved in extracurricular activities, be it fraternities and sororities or clubs, is realty vital to a well-developed academic experience and we have generally fought against instances where campuses have tried to say, tried to dictate, the terms of who can associate with one another.”