EXCLUSIVE: Allegations that the leaders of SAG-AFTRA’s ruling party in New York used “inside information” to win an extra seat on the union’s national board of directors are being leveled by members of the local’s opposition party. The claims could set the stage for an election challenge after ballots are counted next week.
Only eight national board seats representing actors from New York were up for grabs on June 23, the deadline for candidates to submit election materials, but a week later, an email was sent to the local’s members notifying them that a ninth seat had become available “due to a permanent vacancy.”
That vacancy was created when incumbent Sue-Ann Morrow resigned from the board to take a staff position at the local. And yet, when the local’s voter guide was sent to members on July 25, nine candidates were listed on the ruling party’s United Screen Actors Nationwide slate.
Members of the opposition slate, NY Coalition 4 Unity, maintain that USAN had advance knowledge that there was going to be ninth board seat available before the filing deadline and ran nine candidates instead of eight, which gave them an unfair advantage.
“USAN took insider information and abused it,” Jamie C. Ward, who’s running for a seat on the local board as a member of the NY Coalition 4 Unity slate, told Deadline. “Why else would they run nine candidates when only eight seats were open, unless they knew that nine seats were going to be open when nobody else did? That’s unfair to everyone.”
In an August 4 letter to SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White and New York local executive director Jeffrey Bennet, Ward wrote: “There seems to be a question of who knew what and when, and a basic question of fairness in this election that I thought was a hallmark of all SAG-AFTRA elections. I don’t mind that fellow union members and rival slates may have more information because they happen to spend time at our union offices, but when they act on this inside information to take advantage of a national board seat, that is a situation that seems to be unfair and maybe worse. This situation taints our election. This is why I have to speak out.”
Ward said that he has yet to receive a response to his letter from anyone at the union.
Cort Hessler, the ninth board candidate to be added to the USAN slate, told Deadline that Rebecca Damon, the union’s national executive vice president and one of the leaders of the USAN slate, asked him to join the ticket back in May — a month before the filing deadline. He said he didn’t know that there was going to be a vacancy at the time and said that maybe the USAN leaders didn’t either. “They may have put nine up anyway,” Hessler said. “They don’t have to run eight. I was probably the last one in, and that was way back in May, and they probably said, ‘Hey, let’s just include him.’”
Opposition leaders, however, aren’t buying that explanation and say they’re considering filing an election protest.
“I think it’s clearly dirty pool,” said Holter Graham, a national board member and the 2nd vice president of the New York local. “It’s pretty shitty that people see an advantage that’s shady at best and choose that route. If that opportunity peeked out at anyone in our coalition, we would have been up-and-up about it, not snuck off and added it to our advantage.
“It’s may not violate our rules,” he added, “but the further out you go into NLRB or federal law, the gray area starts to get darker pretty quickly.”
Deadline reached out to Anne Gartlan, a NY national board member who’s running for re-election on the opposition slate. “When I found out after the deadline that there would be an additional vacancy on the board,” she said, “I selfishly thought, ‘Oh gee, with this juggernaut slate, maybe there’ll be room for me on the board.’ But when the New York voting guide was published, I realized that USAN was running a ninth candidate. How could that be? We saw USAN Leadership on nine bios, and then we knew they knew. But how did they know there would be a resignation that none of us knew about? Does that seem like fair play? I knew it was OK for [NY Local president Mike Hodge and EVP Rebecca Damon] to know a member was leaving to work for the union – they’re officers. That I got. I don’t mind losing. I mind losing in a corrupt election.”
Deadline left messages for Hodge, Damon and New York executive director Bennet but got no callbacks. A spokeswoman for SAG-AFTRA said, “We do not comment on internal election matters.”