By Tyler Davis
After a four-hour hearing involving six witnesses, Western Carolina University’s Student Government Association Senate narrowly voted not to impeach its president, resident David Rhode.
He kept his job following a 17 to 16 vote. A 2/3 majority vote would have been required to remove Rhode.
Four SGA senators – Fiona Buchanan, Patrick Clemons, Zachary Daniels and Dylan Rood – wrote the articles of impeachment outlining the allegations against Rhode. Clemons is also Rhode’s chosen chief of staff.
According to SGA bylaws of impeachment, an official can be impeached for four offenses – conduct unbecoming, abuse of power, fraudulent misrepresentation and neglect of duty.
President Rhode, a non-voting member of the WCU Board of Trustees, was accused of conduct unbecoming, neglect of duty and abuse of power.
Five charges were brought against Rhode.
Under conduct unbecoming, he was alleged to have taken a monetary donation from Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit.
Rhode also allegedly accepted funds for a hotel room, food and admission to a 2019 conference of TPUSA subsidiary Campus Leadership Project against the advice of WCU administration.
Rhode allegedly held a private meeting with Director of Community Engagement Erica McCurdy and threatened to fire her if details of the meeting were to go public.
Under abuse of power, the articles state that Rhode held a private meeting with Clemons, who is Buchanan’s boyfriend. Rhode allegedly made disparaging remarks about their relationship, accusing Clemons of being influenced by “sexual relations.”
Under neglect of duty, the articles allege Rhode fell asleep at three events – a sustainability conference at Appalachian State University, the dedication ceremony of WCU’s Lavern Allen Hall and the Association of Student Governments meeting at East Carolina University.
At the hearing, Rhode gave an opening statement emphasizing truth, facts and transparency by showing the Senate his credit cards and what he used them for. He presented letters from numerous women, from small-business owners to some affiliated with WCU, to combat allegations of sexism.
He admitted to falling asleep at one of the events.
“I’m only human,” he said.
Buchanan, Clemons, Troi Davis, McCurdy and Sarah Mears were called as witnesses. They were questioned on Rhode’s character, his style of leadership and if he displayed sexist or otherwise abusive behavior towards other officials.
McCurdy was asked about her private meeting with Rhode. She said he shared “deeply personal information” and threatened to fire her if she divulged the conversation.
Rhode was the last witness called.
“I said before that the truth will set me free,” Rhode said.
Chief Justice Kaitlyn Alston asked Rhode if, as a Board of Trustees member, he was allowed to accept payment for attending the TPUSA conference.
“We are not allowed to take gifts whatsoever,” he said. “That’s something I found out when I returned to Western.”
Rhode gave a tearful closing statement, talking about his family and life story.
The senate went into closed session for an hour, voting in a secret ballot afterward.
Then they announced their decision – 16 aye, 17 no.
Two senators later spoke out against the senate’s decision – Buchanan and Benito Garcia-Garcia.
“Rhode blatantly confessed to accepting the bribe and attending the conference during the hearing,” Buchanan said. “He essentially admitted to committing a crime. I was completely appalled by the senate’s vote to keep Rhode in office.”
Garcia-Garcia said he felt that the student senate failed to remove a president from office who clearly violated the SGA constitution and bylaws.
“President Rhode made himself the victim and chose to ignore the real victims of his insensitive character and manners,” he said. “SGA has ruined its reputation and I think it will take a lot to establish it as a reputable organization once again.”
Buchanan and Garcia-Garcia have since resigned from their senate positions in SGA.
If Rhode had been impeached, he would have been barred from holding office with SGA again.
He faced impeachment twice before this during his time as an SGA senator. Before the second hearing, Rhode resigned as senator because he was elected president.
The Herald reached out to Rhode and Clemons for comment. Both men declined.