On the surface, Theta Nu Epsilon, or the Machine as it has come to be called, would seem to have a stranglehold on student government at the University.
The senior Machine representative to Delta Zeta, Lauren Lowery, was one of two students appointed by Vice President of Student Affairs Harry Knopke to the six-member board overseeing Tuesday’s election.
Fifteen members of the SGA Senate serve double duty as Theta Nu Epsilon representatives for their fraternity or sorority.
The president of Theta Nu Epsilon, Ashton Wells, finished his third term representing the College of Arts & Sciences in the SGA Senate Thursday. Wells said he is not a member of the Machine, but said his candidacy for the Senate was endorsed by the Machine.
And Thad Huguley, the Machine-backed candidate for vice president, confirmed that Machine senators regularly meet on Wednesday nights to determine the fate of legislation scheduled to be brought before the Senate each Thursday night.
SGA Vice President Jackie Wuska, who presides over the SGA…Machine.
Yet, according to a source within the Machine, that organization is decisively split into three groups; Old Guard, New Guard and an opportunistic third group that vacillates between the two others according to the way political winds are blowing.
The divisions are evidenced by several key inter-Machine elections decided by votes of 14-13. For example, when the Machine was deciding who to endorse for the 1989 SGA presidency, Chi Omega’s Lynn Yeldell received 14 votes to the 13 votes of Delta Tau Delta’s Tommy Ward.
Contacted Sunday, Ward declined to comment on whether such an election took place.
Similarly, current SGA Treasurer Joey Strength, of Sigma Chi, clinched the Machine endorsement by defeating Zeta Beta Tau’s Jeff Koehn 14-13, the source said. Also, on Dec. 10, 1990, Machine representatives met at around 10 p.m. at the Kappa Alpha house to elect the successor to Vince Smith, the former Machine president who graduated last semester.
In a secret ballot, Delta Chi’s Andy Fink defeated Delta Tau Delta’s Jay Rye 14-13, the source said. Fink, now the current president-elect of the Machine, will take control of the organization after Tuesday’s election. Machine Vice President-elect Matt Warren and Michele Bilderback, who in December was elected to a second term as Machine secretary, will also take office following the selection.
Both Warren and Bilderback said they are not members of the Machine.
The battle being raged between Old and New Guard is not an open one, the source said. Indeed, some Machine representatives are unaware of the schism. “They think those people just tend to stick together,” the person said. “They’re a very unorganized group.”
The source also said the Old Guard is primarily concerned with the accumulation of power, adding that the New Guard is more concerned with effective governance and improving the financial accountability of the Machine.
Currently, all of the 27 houses within the Machine pay $500 in dues each semester, making for a yearly intake of $27,000, the source said. The Machine has a maximum of $20,000 in expenditures each year, the source said, and where the rest of the money goes is a “good question.”
About $10,000 is typically spent on elections, the source said. Last year, for example, SGA President John Coleman received $7,500 for his campaign, the source said. Huguley has acknowledged receiving a personal check made out to Thad Huguley from Theta Nu Epsilon in the amount of $750. The source said $5,000-$7,000 has been paid to SGA presidential candidate Trey Boston.
Boston said he had no knowledge of any money being given to his campaign by the Machine. He said his campaign manager, Scott McCleneghen, handles all his campaign finances.
“I only have to worry about being elected,” he said.
No money is given to Machine candidates for SGA Senate, the source said, but candidates are frequently given access to their house’s account at a local copying store if they want to duplicate campaign materials.
Another $5,000 is spent on election day for rental of the Tuscaloosa Jaycee Fairgrounds, the hiring of bands and the renting of vans to shuttle voters from Fraternity Row and Sorority Row to Ferguson Center.
The source estimated another $5,000 is spent on parties for Machine representatives. “It’s a combination of political action committee and drinking club,” the source said.
It is “widely speculated that the officers are embezzling about $7,000 each year,” the source said. “It is called Old Guard. It is kind of a Machine within the Machine.”
The source said this lack of accountability for the funds contributed by the various houses has caused widespread dissatisfaction in the Machine.
Theta Nu Epsilon has no operating costs, the source said. The organization has no house and has no bills to pay. It is for this reason, the source said, that many Machine representatives are perplexed as to where the money is going. Unless greater accountability is put in place, the source said, the New Guard may leave the Machine.
“There are a lot of reforms that need to be made. It is going to take more than just inside pressure,” the source said. “If something does not happen soon, I see the Machine splitting because of those 13-14 votes. The 13 that keep getting left out are going to join up with fraternities not in the Machine and beat the Machine at its own game.”
Addrian Brooks, and independent candidate for SGA president, has repeatedly said that through a Machine-dominated SGA, 20 percent of the student body controls the representation of the other 80 percent. But, with the Machine so sorely split, the source said, about 12 percent of the students are effectively controlling student government.
Each of the 27 houses in Theta Nu Epsilon has a junior and a senior representative in the Machine. The senior member is invested with the power to vote in Machine meetings. SGA Vice President Wuska, who acknowledged being an ex-officio member of the Machine, said she believes junior members are not allowed to attend all Theta Nu Epsilon meetings.
At a Theta Nu Epsilon meeting Sunday night at the Alpha Tau Omega house, Machine Vice President-elect Matt Warren was the only junior representative identified by reporters for The Crimson White. It was at two Theta Nu Epsilon meetings held at the Alpha Tau Omega house in mid- to late September that the Machine decided upon its slate of candidates for this year’s election, the source said. In the first meeting, Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Trey Boston was the only candidate nominated for president, and Alpha Omicron Pi’s Melinda Ward was the only one nominated for treasurer.
Ward was ultimately disqualified from the race because her grade point average was below the 2.5 required of all executive and judicial candidates.
That same night, however, Phi Gamma Delta’s junior Machine representative Todd Rich was nominated to run against Huguley by Tommy Grant, the fraternity’s senior representative at that time, the source said. Contacted at the University Golf Course Saturday, Huguley said he was aware that he and Rich had vied for the same position.
The issue was resolved one week later when Grant, after determining he did not have the votes to secure Rich’s nomination, pulled out the night of the scheduled election, the source said. With all three executive positions left uncontested, the slate was made official that evening. The result was seen as a big victory for the New Guard, the source said, as all three candidates are members of New Guard houses.
When the senior representatives cast their verbal ballots, they do not vote for a candidate, but rather for a house, the source said. Instead of voting for John Coleman, for example, they would vote for Sigma Nu. This reflects the significance of the representatives in the electoral process, where the popularity and influence of individual representatives often determines which candidates are allowed to run for office.
“We don’t vote for the person that is running. We vote for the fraternity or sorority,” the source said. “We’re not putting the best people in office. Whoever happens to have good representatives, gets in. So you don’t always have the best candidate that the greek community can offer.”
It is rare that an unqualified person would be nominated for an executive position, but such people are frequently supported for senate seats, the source said. These senators are “not really concerned with students. They are just in the senate meetings to vote and leave.”
The source said, and Huguley confirmed, that Machine senators meet Wednesday evenings to discuss legislation scheduled to [be] brought before the Senate’s Thursday night meetings. Huguley said he has attended these meetings before, but has not been for a “long time.”
Huguley said Wuska attended these meetings, which were designed to ensure that the Senate did not exceed its budget ceiling by allocating more funds than were available. Wuska said she did not attend these meetings and said that, to the best of her knowledge, no such meetings were held.
The source said several senators, notably Huguley and Men’s Residence Hall Sen. Colby Allsbrook, vote their conscience. The source said Allsbrook did not receive the Machine endorsement this year because his representatives lacked influence within Theta Nu Epsilon.
Allsbrook’s fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, is the only house that elects its Machine representative, the source said. This results in the fraternity electing new representatives each year. Because a fraternity’s clout within the Machine is dependent upon the respect accorded its representatives, politically ambitious members of Lambda Chi Alpha are at a great disadvantage in securing the Machine nomination, the source said.
“Lambda Chi will never get anything,” the source said. “It (the nominating process) is all done for weird reasons. It is not logic, and it is not always who is the most electable candidate. It is who is most well-liked within the 27 senior reps.”
A source within the Machine said Theta Nu Epsilon President-elect Andy Fink is not an active member of his fraternity, Delta Chi. According to the source, each Machine member is required to be active within the house. A man who answered the door at Delta Chi Sunday confirmed that Fink is not an active member of the fraternity.
The source within Theta Nu Epsilon said some Machine members knew at the time of the election that Fink was inactive, but were “afraid to call wolf on it for fear of repercussions (from Old Guard) on their house.”
In another break with tradition, Machine representatives have shown an increasing tendency to put themselves forward as candidates for SGA office, the source said. In previous years, politically motivated students from Machine houses had to make a decision whether they wanted to be “upstairs” or “downstairs,” the source said.
Those who chose to be “upstairs” would move into the high profile positions in the executive and legislative branches of SGA. Those who chose to be “downstairs” would become Machine representatives and exert their influence in the choosing of candidates. Traditionally, representatives would nominate individuals from their houses for SGA office.
In recent years, however, this distinction has been blurred as more and more Machine representatives nominated themselves. Currently, 15 Machine representatives, not including Wuska, who is an ex-officio member, belong to the SGA senate.
In addition, Phi Gamma Delta representative Todd Rich pursued the Machine’s vice presidential nomination last fall.
New initiates into the Machine are chosen by the senior member of their particular house. There are two initiation ceremonies each year, one in the fall and a larger one in the spring.
In these ceremonies, initiates are picked up by a Machine member from a house other than their own, and submitted to mental hazing, the source said. On rare occasions, the source said, some are forced to drink alcohol.
The location is sometimes a fraternity house, sometimes a house off campus and sometimes a field off campus. The location is different each time, a source within the Machine said. The ceremony itself is very short. The Machine’s history is read aloud, and an oath is administered simultaneously to all initiates.
During the ceremony, the members already in the organization wear black hoods. Embossed in gold lettering on these hoods are the greek letters for Theta Nu Epsilon, which are similar to “ONE” in English. “The idea being, ‘We are one,’” the source said.
At the conclusion of the ceremony the members remove their hoods and introduce themselves to their new colleagues.
Andrew Skier, who has been identified as the Machine representative for Zeta Beta Tau, said The Crimson White had “done a good job” uncovering information on the Machine but expressed concern that too much emphasis was being placed on the secret organization.
“You’ve done some work finding out information,” Skier said. But the CW should “not make the Machine out to be bigger than it really is…All it is basically is a group that promotes and endorses candidates for student government office. It happens to be a little more organized than most groups on campus.”
Skier, however, would neither confirm nor deny being a member of the Machine.
The CW attempted to contact every individual identified as a Machine member. The following denied membership in the Machine: Ashton Wells, Michele Bilderback, Matt Warren, Scott McCleneghen, Mike Mashburn, Mary Ellen Tomlin, Lyn Grant, Nicole Schilleci, Evans Dunn, Bob Methvin, Jamie Holman, Hunter Chambliss and Dale Meadows.
The following refused to comment: Andrew Skier, Gloria Kraver, John Harvey, Todd Rich, Tim Garvey, Ernest Burch, Jay Rye, Tommy Ward, Ray Cole, Lauren Lowery, Rick Anthony, Tim Attinger, Andrew Wilde, Stacey McDuffa and Aaron Solomon.
The following either did not return calls or could not be reached for comment: Andy Fink, Leigh Rigby, Juliet Marks, Elizabeth Dill, Whelan Smith, Paul Graham, Chanee McCullough, Lisa Jones, Keith Bell, David Adams, Beau Jones, Joey Strength, Brad Ballard, Lisa Tisdale, Lisa Buelow, Ruth McLeod, Mandy Horner, Erin Upton, Kim Orchik, Darcy Fogelberg, Jim Kline, Megan Reed, John Coleman, Coke Williams, Bill Goodloe and Sharon Batson.
Tommy Ward would not comment on his membership status but said he had recently withdrawn from the law school and had withdrawn from the campaign for law school senator.
The source within the Machine said certain administrators found the Machine “very interesting.”
“They may not like it, but there’s nothing they can do about it,” the source said.
Vice President for Student Affairs Harry Knopke, who appointed Delta Zeta’s senior representative Lauren Lowery to the Elections Board upon a recommendation from the Office of Student Life, said administrators do not have a “cozy” relationship with Machine members involved in student government.
University administrators have said they would consider accepting the Machine as a registered student organization.
Knopke also said that if Theta Nu Epsilon would consider bringing itself above ground, the administration would consider recognizing the group.
He said, however, that any acceptance would only occur after the organization’s history had been taken into account.
Also, Jack Baeir, former vice president for student affairs told the CW in early January that he would have let the Machine become a University-recognized organization if it had made such a request.