Article updated Feb. 21
SSMU President Zach Newburgh admitted in a presentation to the Legislative Council that he “made errors in judgment along the way” and “regret[s] the way in which” he was involved with Internet startup Jobbook. The president fielded questions from Councillors and students after his speech.
To begin his statement, presented to a gallery of about forty members, Newburgh lamented a “sweeping disregard for [his] personal character,” and that he would “even go so far as to say there’s a lack of humanity” surrounding the treatment of his involvement.
The presentation detailed a timeline of Newburgh’s actions, beginning with “several” approaches from Jobbook founder Jean de Brabant before their initial meeting, and ending with rescinding his personal shares in the company before the issue was brought to Council on February 3. Newburgh stated repeatedly that media coverage of the situation has been unbalanced and out of context.
Newburgh declared that he “used the Conflict of Interest Policy to guide my involvement with Jobbook in the first place,” and that recent issues point to the fact that it needs to be reviewed and edited.
“I intend to spearhead this … I believe this is of utmost importance,” he said of the policy review. Newburgh also apologized for using his official SSMU email address for correspondence relating to Jobbook, but pointed out that there are no policies guiding email usage.
The presentation constituted Newburgh’s first public discussion of his involvement with Jobbook, following a confidential session of Legislative Council that resulted in his censure and interviews with various campus media outlets in the weeks between the two meetings of Legislative Council.
Newburgh was the only person permitted to disclose details of the confidential session. In an interview with The Daily, Clubs and Services Councillor Maggie Knight said the presentation served to inform concerned students.
“Council has had the opportunity to hash out details in our confidential session, but students haven’t had that privilege so I think some students wanted a chance to show that they’re upset,” said Knight. “Students don’t feel like they know what’s going on.”
In response to allegations that he had misled the student leaders of other universities about the nature of his involvement with Jobbook, Newburgh insisted that there was “always the intention of discussing student life,” on his trips, and explained that he was unable to in a number of situations due to tight schedules and frequent travel delays.
Daily editor Eric Wen later requested that Newburgh expand on this claim, pointing out that Jobbook took precedence in these meetings, and whether this meant that it was Newburgh’s priority. Newburgh’s response was that it “is certainly something that an individual can infer.”
Former VP External Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan asked whether Newburgh believed his position as President of SSMU was the reason de Brabant had approached him. Newburgh refused to answer the question, replying that it was pertinent to a trial, not an open discussion. Law Councillor Kirk Emory asked for clarification as to why Newburgh was contacted personally instead of any other member of council.
“Originally [Jean de Brabant] contacted me because of the office that I hold, but he chose to involve me personally as a result of — I believe – the person that I am,” said Newburgh.
Several questions were asked as to the involvement of other individuals from the McGill community. Newburgh revealed that he had recently found out about the involvement of Engineering Senator Simon Liu, but that no other students in SSMU leadership positions had participated in the Jobbook venture. He later added that EUS VP Communications Josh Redel had also been involved, and had attended the meeting at Harvard University, but was not considered SSMU leadership.
Newburgh also disclosed that his brother and his roommate had signed nondisclosure agreements and had been informed of his work with Jobbook, but that they were told for personal reasons.
A number of questions pertained to the nondisclosure agreement that Newburgh signed upon his first meeting with de Brabant. At one point, Newburgh was read the duties of the President as outlined in the SSMU Constitution and asked how he could have fulfilled them better. “I would have said that I can’t sign a NDA [non-disclosure agreement] … I would have brought it to Executive Committee to decide whether or not I could be involved in something like this,” he said.
“Beyond that, I would have made it even more clear to the individuals who I was visiting … I wouldn’t have used the president [email] account, I would have been more mindful of that than I was … If I could do it all over again, that would be how I would have done it, but hindsight is 20/20.” Newburgh also stated that he had “not thought to share” the fact that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.
An article published on February 15 in the Daily Bruin, the newspaper of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), revealed that Financial Supports Commissioner Rustom Z. Birdie had been in contact with Jobbook. In exchange for promotion of the site, Birdie was offered shares in the company which he could accept once his term on the UCLA student government ends. Newburgh and de Brabant met with UCLA, among other California schools, in November. Newburgh claimed that he didn’t have much information but was aware of the case.
When one gallery member asked why Newburgh has not resigned from his office, he replied that only “questions that relate to the specifics of my involvement” would be answered, and reiterated that no policies had been broken.
He later stated that, “If there are charges brought against me on reasonable grounds that can prove to me that I should step down, I will do so. But until such time, considering that there seem to have been no such charges pointing to a violation, I have no plans to do so.”
In an email to The Daily, Emery wrote that he was “a little disappointed when some students were discouraged from asking the really tough and directed questions.”
Emery also noted that “good questions were asked by students and councillors and, on the whole, good answers were given.”
Knight said she hoped it was a “step in the right direction,” but admitted that she wasn’t sure.
“I haven’t had time to talk to students who asked questions, so I’m not sure if they feel better about the situation,” said Knight.