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Doctored receipts led to spending cap breach in SULS election

Hannah Ryan reports on the reasons for Fetch for SULS’ spending cap breach.

Fetch campaign manager and Treasurer candidate Callum Forbes

New information has emerged indicating that a candidate in last week’s Sydney University Law Society (SULS) election, Callum Forbes, forged receipts in order to exceed the allowable spending cap of $750. The spending cap breach led to Forbes’ ticket Fetch being disqualified from the election. The Electoral Officer Kathleen Heath also found that Forbes had engaged in “dishonest conduct in relation to the election”, which is prohibited by the electoral regulations.

Forbes, who was Fetch’s candidate for Treasurer and campaign manager, had previously told Honi that the breach occurred because he obtained a “good deal” on campaign items, whose actual market value exceeded the $750 cap by 25%.  This was the same explanation that he gave in a Facebook post from the FETCH for SULS Facebook page last Wednesday. That post disappeared a few hours later, as the Electoral Officer asked him to remove it because of its misleading content.

A post from the ‘Fetch for SULS’ Facebook page on Wednesday October 23

In reality, the question of “mates’ rates” did not factor into the Electoral Officer’s decision. The Electoral Officer’s letter of breach, provided to members of Fetch, indicates that at a meeting soon after the close of polls Forbes admitted that he altered Fetch’s receipts using Adobe InDesign to conceal the breach of the spending cap. This concession led to the Electoral Officer’s finding of dishonest conduct. According to the electoral regulation, any breach of the spending cap automatically results in a ticket’s disqualification, with no discretion for the Electoral Officer.

Forbes, a first year JD student, is currently a councillor with the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association and the Treasurer of SHADES. He holds a Masters in Accounting. He was the IT Officer on this year’s SULS Executive but resigned this week. His conduct may be damaging to his career, as the Legal Profession Admission Board looks unkindly upon dishonesty when determining whether an applicant may be admitted as a lawyer. Forbes says he is still deciding whether to pursue a career in business or law.

On his conduct in the SULS election, Forbes said: “I made a mistake. I’ve acknowledged that and I’ve learned from it. That’s why we’re at uni – to learn.” When asked why he blamed the spending cap breach on mates’ rates instead of his doctoring of receipts, he said: “I have previously acknowledged that there were other contributing factors to the breach of the spending cap. Everything I’ve done has been to help the team move on from the situation that I’ve created.” Forbes told Honi that no other members of Fetch were aware of his actions.

Forbes had previously been rumoured to be a Liberal candidate in next year’s Union Board election. When asked if he was still planning on running, he said: “I do plan on continuing to contribute to student life at Sydney Uni over the course of my degree in whatever way my skills and experience can be most effectively utilised.”

Fetch campaign manager and Treasurer candidate Callum Forbes
Fetch campaign manager and Treasurer candidate Callum Forbes

Forbes’ teammates are unimpressed. In a statement to Honi, the other sixteen candidates said: “We were, unfortunately, misled about the state of our finances, and were only made aware of the breaches and Callum’s attempts to conceal them after the close of polling…We would like to make clear that we strongly condemn his conduct in (a) breaching the spending cap, and (b) engaging in dishonest practice in relation to the election by altering receipts in order to conceal the spending cap breach.”

Fetch’s Presidential candidate Matt Yeldham described the events as “truly, truly devastating.” When asked if he knew what was happening, he said: “I had no idea what was going on. I did have suspicions and I raised them with Callum, and Callum repeatedly told me that our finances were OK and to trust him about the state of our finances and I did.”

“I had no reason not to trust him – with him being a friend and campaign manager, but also him running for Treasurer and having a Masters in Accounting.”

“I’m not so much even upset at the fact that we lost,” said ticket member Judy Zhu. “It’s more at the fact that he breached the regulations, then lied to us about it, then lied to Honi about it, and lied to us throughout the whole campaign. We asked him several times about the spending cap, to which we were told that it was not an issue, he had everything under control. He was quite insistent.”

It appears Forbes may also have misled his ticket members as to the reason for the spending cap breach. Zhu claims she learned that Fetch had been disqualified through Forbes, but that he blamed the breach on the mates’ rates issue, and did not mention any alteration of receipts.

Drum candidate and next year’s SULS President, James Higgins, also expressed disappointment at Forbes’ conduct. “It reflects badly on the society and it’s very unfair the way it reflects on the other members of his ticket,” he said. “I think it was a very stupid thing and a very arrogant thing to do, given the procedures that are in place to prevent that kind of thing happening.”

“We all think SULS is important, but in the end it’s just a student election for a faculty society. I find it really unbelievable that anyone would do that.”