CUSA accused of conflict of interest

A former Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) president has levelled allegations of conflict of interest towards former Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) president Fahd Alhattab, regarding the hiring of a consulting company led by Alhattab’s former CUSA council campaign manager.

In March 2016, CUSA hired the Sarkany Group to analyze their businesses and service centres, and to make recommendations to increase profits and student satisfaction. CUSA paid approximately $20,000 for six months of full-time work from two consultants, Alhattab said.

According to Alhattab, “. . . the deal that we got, for two consultants who have award recognition and have done other clients and have brought real good quality expertise from the field into our businesses, we got a really good deal.”

According to the Sarkany Group website, the president of the company is Michael Cacho, a Carleton international business alumnus. Alhattab confirmed that Cacho served as his CUSA council campaign manager before Alhattab became a CUSA executive, but said hiring the company was not a conflict of interest.

“[Sarkany] put up the best case for the job in their proposal, and I made it very clear to my team and all of the people involved in the hiring process that this was someone I knew from past and to take that into consideration when we’re looking at all the other teams and we’re looking at all the other proposals, that there is a past friendship here that I have,” Alhattab said. “But I’m here to make sure that we’re moving CUSA forward, that we’re choosing the best people for the job as we always do, and how do we solve these problems and create solutions.”

In an April 5 post on the online publishing platform Medium, Michael Bueckert, GSA president for the 2015-16 academic year, alleged that Sarkany was hired based on Alhattab’s relationship to Cacho, rather than the company’s qualifications.

“I don’t know if it’s a conflict of interest, but it’s very suspicious . . . there’s a lot to suggest that the reason they hired these individuals is because they were friends,” Bueckert said in an interview.

Cacho declined to provide details about the dealings, citing client confidentiality. However, he said he disagreed with Bueckert’s allegations.

“I do not believe any previous work provided creates a conflict of interest in this job,” Cacho stated in an email.

A Carleton Stories article published in June 2016 states the Sarkany Group existed for just under a year before it was hired by CUSA. After Cacho’s Sprott team won the Network of International Business Schools (NIBS) Worldwide Case Competition championship in February 2016, Cacho and one of his NIBS teammates, Alejandro Barreto, formed the consulting firm.

Hiring Carleton graduates was an added benefit because the firm had knowledge of the campus landscape, Alhattab said.

“They were able to give more details and more initial scope and then at the same time, their pricing for their proposal and the amount of work that they were doing was almost a quarter of the price of some of the other firms,” he said.

According to Bueckert, the company lacks a legitimate website, business information and prior work experience. The Sarkany Group’s website provides one contact email address and an Ottawa residential address, but multiple sections are lacking details or are blank.

Bueckert also said that the Sarkany report lacks professionalism.

“It’s basically unreadable . . . it relies on a lot of jargon and I just find it shocking that [CUSA] reportedly paid $22,000 for this report,” he said.

A report released on July 20, 2016 recommends that CUSA-owned businesses, such as Oliver’s Pub & Patio, implement a “dining experience for the millennial.”

This includes adding more “shareable” food items to the menu, such as mix-and-match platters, along with more menu labeling to identify foods suitable for those with dietary restrictions. A self-serve hot breakfast buffet during peak breakfast hours, as well as an increase in sandwich and pizza offerings, were also recommended in the report.

However, Alhattab said Oliver’s failed to improve profits using the report’s recommendations.

“We were unsuccessful in actually seeing an improvement in Oliver’s numbers. [There were] some environmental factors and some factors that . . . even near the end of my year we were still trying to figure out in terms of how to adjust,” Alhattab said.

Recommendations for Henry’s convenience store released in a report dated August 2, 2016 focused on increasing the amount of grab-and-go food offerings currently available from Rooster’s.

In order to create a “fresh perception” of grab-and-go foods, the report recommended “artisanal labeling” and the use of “on-trend ingredients.” The creation of a Rooster’s “branded grab-and-go kiosk” within Henry’s was also suggested as a way to increase appetite appeal.

According to Alhattab, a 2015 audit revealed Henry’s lost $60,000 in his first term as president, but Sarkany’s recommendations, such as the Rooster’s grab-and-go option, brought the loss down to $40,000 in his second term. He added that Rooster’s increased its revenue by approximately $10,000 to $15,000 due to the report’s guidelines.

According to Alhattab, recommendations also targeted CUSA service centres to maximize their $700,000 total annual budget’s value for students.

Photo by Meagan Casalino

To address “social stigma” and “the inability to attract able-bodied individuals to their events and service centre,” the report recommended that the Carleton Disability Awareness Centre (CDAC) gear a greater portion of its events “towards the interests of the general student population” and avoid targeting “messaging of impairment” in event promotions.

“In a student association, running businesses is not purely about making money. It’s about balancing that line of profitability and service to students,” Alhattab said.

But Bueckert said CUSA owes undergraduate students an explanation for hiring the Sarkany Group.

“Be open and transparent about what this company is and whether it was appropriate or not [for CUSA] to spend that amount of money on their friends,” he said.

Regardless of Bueckert’s allegations, Alhattab said he considers hiring the Sarkany Group to be a “huge success.”

“We’re students at the end of the day, and we might be able to lead students, we might be able to lead campaigns, we might be able to advocate, but sometimes you need expertise outside to be able to get the job done appropriately,” he said.         

— With files from Madison Ranta and Naomi Librach

Photo by Troy Curtis