USG president among campus leaders nationwide linked to conservative group accused of influencing elections
On a Wednesday evening at the end of January, as he is on most Wednesday evenings, Undergraduate Student Government President Austin Dunn was hunched over a laptop in TCC 241 — the epicenter of USC student governance. That night, Dunn finds himself nearly alone there, a campus leader toiling away beneath a cloud of unease.
Most student leaders were at the first USG presidential debate, listening to the two aspiring presidential and vice presidential candidates debate the University’s most pressing issues. Two buildings away was Dunn, who has become an outsider in an organization in which he was elected as very much an insider.
But in recent months, starting with the publication of a New Yorker piece in late December, Dunn has been at the focus of swirling allegations about possible ties to a conservative nonprofit called Turning Point USA.
In the article, the organization was accused of meddling in student elections with the aim of laying down conservative ideology on national campuses often painted blue. The article mentions a donor-aimed brochure, titled “The Campus Victory Project,” highlighting universities where the organization claims it helped student leaders get elected.
“Once in control of student governments,” the brochure says, “Turning Point expects its allied campus leaders to follow a set political agenda,” including putting in place greater protections to free speech and pulling funding from liberal-leaning groups, the article says.
Mobile screenshots referred to in the piece show one field director sending a TPUSA employee a racially offensive text message about black people.
Association with the organization has also caused turmoil at other national universities. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, elected student officials at the University of Maryland and Ohio State had to step down due to involvement with the Turning Point organization that violated their schools’ campaign finance laws.
And joining the ranks of the more than 54 universities the Turning Point brochure claims to have benefited from Turning Point’s election network is the University of Southern California.
In fact, more than just USC. In documents from the brochure reviewed by the Daily Trojan, Dunn’s name was listed specifically.
In a quiet conference room in the back of the USG office, Dunn addressed the Turning Point allegations. He said that his involvement has been misconstrued, that when they contacted him he said candidates could “get support through social media,” but that he never accepted money from them.
“Other than [social media], that’s not really welcomed here,” Dunn said he told TPUSA staff.
He said he attended two of their conferences, but only to meet with other student leaders, unaware until the publication of the New Yorker article about the allegations that had been brought forth against the organization. No campaign sanctions were ever brought against Dunn, nor are endorsements from outside organizations deemed illegal by the Elections Code.
“I just remember reading it, and being like, ‘holy crap, holy crap, holy crap,’ looking through the article and at the end, it was like, ‘whoa, why are there random schools listed here’ and ‘why is my school listed here?’” Dunn said.
According to Dunn, his contact with TPUSA began in the spring of 2016, when he was campaigning on his first major USG ticket as the vice presidential running mate for then-presidential candidate Edwin Saucedo.
Saucedo said he had no knowledge that Turning Point had reached out to Dunn.
In the Turning Point at USC Facebook group run in part by TPUSA staff members, interactions between Turning Point staff and Dunn indicate that TPUSA was involved in social media campaigning for Dunn during his first major USC election for vice president in 2016.
A post from a Turning Point regional director at the time urged those in the group to change their profile pictures to support the Edwin & Austin ticket — consisting of Dunn and Saucedo, who would go on to be elected. Saucedo has since graduated.
“We really want these guys to win,” the post read. Dunn was tagged in the post but Saucedo was not.
Saucedo claims he did not become aware of what Turning Point was until after the publication of the New Yorker piece and had no knowledge of any social media efforts between Dunn and TPUSA during the election.
“I was surprised they said they had endorsed us because I had never sought out their endorsement,” Saucedo said.
Aside from the social media involvement, once elected as president in 2017, Dunn said he attended two conferences with Turning Point, of which the Daily Trojan acquired a roommate list from one in June that confirmed his attendance.
On the website, the conference, titled “Road to Majority,” said that it selected 200-plus students to attend and gave the selected students the opportunity “to hear from a variety of accomplished speakers and leaders in the conservative movement, acquire new activism and leadership skills, connect with like-minded organizations and network with other young professionals from across the country.” TPUSA said it covered the costs of hotel accommodations and admission.
The speakers lists of the two conferences Dunn attended read like a who’s-who of conservative politics, with both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listed as keynote speakers at the conference in June, alongside rising conservative media personalities Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren. Shapiro has recently made headlines for causing eruptions of student protests earlier this year at UC Berkeley where he was scheduled to speak.
Dunn said nothing during his time at the conferences struck him as a “red flag” regarding the organization. He said he was “never really interested” in the speakers, but rather attended for the workshopping and networking opportunities with other student leaders. Though he said he was aware of the organization’s conservatism, he said it is common for conferences of this nature to have political leanings and this was not something that struck him as unusual.
“All I really focused on was what I could get out of it for student government, and it was just focused on [how] these other student leaders are here, and we can put our heads together and the fruitful discussions that were coming out of that were really where my focus was at,” Dunn said.
Rachel Udabe, a senior who ran against Dunn for USG president last year and received the second-most votes, said that though it would have been nice for candidates to divulge any possible partisan ties they maintained, it’s not something she would expect.
“There were other things that were hidden from the student body in how they were running their campaign, so I wouldn’t expect them to be forthright about it,” Udabe said.
Udabe’s comments refer to a 48-hour social media ban handed down by the Elections Commission to Dunn’s 2017 presidential campaign after the commission found that their ticket had violated election rules by launching social media campaigning before the designated period had begun.
Udabe said that she and her running mate were focused on running a campaign based on their platform, so knowledge of any prior association between Dunn and Turning Point would not have impacted her campaign strategy. She also said she believes that if there were an affiliation between Dunn and Turning Point, either during the campaign in which she was a part of or the one prior, it would not have impacted much, because the Elections Code safeguards against external donations.
Dunn said that never along the course of the campaign did he take money. Because of the way the Elections Code is set up, in which all students must apply for campaign reimbursements, it would not make sense for them to donate, Dunn said. It’s also explicitly prohibited in the Elections Code.
Dunn said he was unaware Turning Point was using his name in its marketing materials, and that he gave “zero consent” for them to do so. He said he is non-political and feels that his ties to the organization have painted him as being more partisan than he actually is. He also said he would tell future USG presidents to tread lightly in their interactions with outside organizations.
“So, it has probably — not probably — it has without a doubt been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life,” Dunn said. “Just in this job, it’s been very difficult, I would say, to be tied to things without approval, and then kind of be looked at in a certain light, when that’s not really who I am or what I stand for.”
Turning Point USA did not respond to repeated requests for comment about its affiliation with USC student government.
THE GRAY AREA
As for the USG Elections Code, the rules regarding endorsements are murky.
The code tackles endorsements in articles XI.A and XI.B. There, the code states the protocol for student organizations endorsing USG candidates — saying they “may be endorsed by any recognized student organization as defined by the Office of Campus Activities or Office for Residential and Greek Life.”
“[Outside endorsements] don’t exist,” said Emily Lee, a former USG Elections Director and the author of the 2017-2018 Elections Code. “Maybe they exist on the internet but they’re never going to be listed and recognized as official endorsements.”
In terms of external donations, Election Code article X.M. states, “Candidates may not accept or offer any monetary contributions in exchange for personal or political gain during any point in the Elections period. Services provided free of charge must be declared, and are subject to examination by the Elections Auditor.”
But these two codes are the closest the Elections Code gets to confronting a case of potential third-party interference in elections. And here, according to Dunn, lies the problem.
“There are no regulations on what we can and cannot do, and it’s really hard because, being in an elected position, you’re obviously a representative of the University; there’s times when you’re like, ‘I just want to represent myself,’” Dunn said. “But you can’t just take that hat on and off.”
Dunn stated that it’s not always clear through the bylaws what is allowed and what is not. He even advocated for stricter policies about candidates and partisan ties.
“Recognized student orgs are [the] only ones allowed to endorse campaigns, and only if they have taken the appropriate measures as required by the code,” USG Communications Director Daniel Zhu said in a statement emailed to the Daily Trojan last week.
But the Elections Code never explicitly bars candidates from either seeking or receiving an endorsement from outside organizations.
Once USG officials take office, there exists greater ambiguity in whether candidates’ affiliations with special interest groups violate USG rules.
Lee said the Elections team or a third party could bring forth allegations of potentially illegal involvement between a USG candidate and a special interest group.
However, with regard to post-elections investigations, Lee said: “Well that’s something that we have the press for, right?”
THE INVISIBLE HAND
Turning Point USA was founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk. Kirk, now 25, describes himself in his book Time for a Turning Point: Setting a Course Toward Free Markets and Limited Government as “just a 22-year-old who loves individual freedom.”
He is a regular contributor on Fox News, spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and was featured on the 2018 Forbes list “30 Under 30.” In his book, he says he created Turning Point to promote free market values and the benefits of small government to younger generations. He also discusses using social media to engage younger audiences in his brand of conservatism.
Kirk mentions student governments as a particularly apt means of spreading the conservative message.
In essence, the process Kirk describes is that Turning Point staff finds students they think may be receptive to their messaging and propose ideas that adhere to their ideology — he describes this in terms of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”
For example, Kirk took partial credit for the initiative to bring free Uber service to USC — which came January 2015, as part of a collaboration between the USG University Affairs committee and USC Transportation. He said it was done in part “with the help of Turning Point USA activists.”
Dunn, who served as a part of the committee, said that the assertion was “not even close to relevant or factual.”
Turning Point USA’s efforts also extend to that of normal student organizations. TPUSA chapters exist on multiple campuses across the United States, including USC.
Xena Amirani, the president of the USC Turning Point chapter, said that the group had existed at USC in the past, but fizzled out until she restarted it last year. She said she came across a table on Trousdale Parkway with TPUSA staff members who helped her restart the chapter on USC’s campus. In fact, she said that she had been recruited to join Turning Point before she had even started at USC.
Amirani’s retelling of her introduction to Turning Point aligns almost verbatim with Kirk’s book, which states that “every campus had a Turning Point display table set up in as prominent, and as high-traffic, an area as campus would permit us to occupy. The table for this week displayed banners and signage noting ‘Big Government Sucks,’ and ‘Saying No to Obamacare.’”
Though Amirani says she coordinates with Turning Point staff, she said she had no knowledge of Dunn’s association with them. Following the publication of the New Yorker piece, she took the article to a club meeting with her and asked her fellow club members if they knew anything about it. Most of them, Amirani said, didn’t even know who Dunn was.
“As far as the USC [Turning Point chapter] goes, I’m pretty sure everybody else was really confused too, because they were all like, ‘Really? Austin Dunn is conservative? What conservative thing has he done?’” Amirani said.
REACHING A TURNING POINT
Previous USG presidents Rini Sampath and Saucedo say the main issue is not necessarily whether affiliations with special interest groups break the USG Elections Code or bylaws, but rather the precedent it sets for the organization.
“I think that it’s dangerous to allow these special interest groups to exploit our students in that way, to allow them to essentially — while our students are developing their views and perspectives on social issues and financial issues — come in and impose their political agendas on them,” said Sampath, who served as president in the 2015-2016 term. “[It’s] quite scary.”
Saucedo said he was also disturbed by the allegations of election interference. But he said these allegations should lead to change within USG.
“I think the organization as a whole should be asking questions about how this impacts them and the work that they have been doing for such a long time,” Saucedo said. “Whether these allegations are true or not … I think any good leader would take proactive measures to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Dunn said he hears this sentiment and agrees. He said he’s been thinking about the future of USG, the future administration and how they can be better supported to prevent something like this from happening again. He said he plans to sit down with the next president and have a discussion about how to avoid the missteps he made.
“I think what’s upsetting, [for] what many people deem as public figures, our interests don’t really matter to these organizations,” Dunn said. “At the end of the day, nobody cares how that affected me and our student organization, and that’s upsetting in itself.”
Dunn said he’s ready to move on — from politics and from the Turning Point controversy. He said he doesn’t care for politics and studying political science and public diplomacy has only fortified in him how much he wants to leave politics behind.
And so, after the interview, he did just that. While candidates just two buildings over vied to fill his spot, Dunn retreated back to the nearly empty USG office in his suit, laptop under his arm, for a few final moments of quiet.
Tomás Mier contributed to this report.