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How AILA Handles Dissent

by Kenneth Rinzler

As readers of ILW and AILA's Message Center know, I have voiced many concerns about AILA's transparency and openness, including how it spends its dues money, its advocacy efforts, and its general governance. From being forced to publish its tax returns on its web site, to justifying its outrageous and top-heavy senior staff salaries, to trying to get them to have real elections with multiple nominated candidates and announcing the individual vote totals, to answering questions about previously undisclosed insider loans and unusual book deals, substantive issues have been raised about AILA's integrity and openness as an organization. In fact, I have questioned the modus operandi of virtually everything AILA and its leadership does, and I make no apologies for doing something which so desperately needed to be done for this organization. Most of the discussion which has followed has been substantive, passionate and, unfortunately, predictable, depending on who was making whatever point; in a word, political. To me, at least, that is how it should be.

Last Friday, however, the Executive Director of AILA, Crystal Williams, clearly decided to make it purely personal. And to exacerbate matters, this was obviously done with the tacit, if not active, approval of all of the present and some of the former elected officers of AILA, for not one of them has either the professionalism, decency, or courage to come out and condemn the personal vitriol and unprofessional behavior of a person whom we pay $248,000 per year (at least as of AILA's 2010 Federal tax return; no doubt it's significantly more by now) to run a member-funded professional legal association.

As previously stated, many members, not just me (as is clearly demonstrated by the thousands of viewers of these governance-related strings on the Message Center) have been discussing the need for AILA to change its election procedures, specifically by nominating more than one candidate for each office and by announcing the individual vote totals for all elections. On May 14 I both posted on the Message Center and emailed Crystal a request to have this done, and on the next day Crystal responded that she would raise the matter with the Executive Committee (ExCom). On May 22 I posted a poem about the lack of an answer, which was my attempt to keep it light yet pointed. No names mentioned, etc. On May 30 I received this from Crystal: "We'll announce the total number who voted when the election results are announced."

This led to my May 31 email to Crystal, with a copy to AILA President Eleanor Pelta:

"Your answer is not clear. The total number who voted is not the same as announcing the results. Members would like to know how many votes each candidate received, not just that 4,000 people voted. In a U.S. Presidential election, people want to hear more than "46 million people voted and Obama won".
Would you please be kind enough to clarify what you mean? And thanks for not keeping me advised. Like with the posting of the tax returns, it's fairly clear what's going on here, especially as you are supposed to be moderating the AILA forum on InfoNet. You don't have to like me, but how about dealing with these legitimate concerns up front?"

Again, nothing abhorrent and completely legitimate.

And here, for those who may not have seen it, is the response I received at 5:52 PM on May 31 from Crystal Williams, the Executive Director of a group comprised of 11,000 attorneys, and an attorney herself, composed in language that can only be described as childish and disturbed:

"Obviously my answer is clear, since you understood it. We'll announce the overall numbers. We are not going to announce the individual candidate tallies. This is not an election to public office. This is a voluntary organization, in which members step up to run for offices that involve a considerable investment of time in return for which the individual receives no remuneration but only the rewards of the satisfaction of advancing the organization and its missions.

"Every year, a number of dark horse candidates put themselves forward to run by nomination or by petition. They often do come in with low vote counts. But would they run at all if they thought they were going to be publicly humiliated if they wind up pulling in a very small number of votes? That is the concern. Our leadership does not want to put a damper on people's willingness to run. I have to agree--it's important that people feel free to take that chance.

"Since your initial reason for wanting the vote totals is to "prove" that AILA elections are ineffective, having the overall number should serve your purposes. Though, if you do a true and honest analysis, you may find that the numbers don't bear up that proposition. AILA usually runs at about an 18% turnout, give or take. For a bar association, that is on the high side. For example, the DC bar (which does have at least two nominees for every office) averages 12%.

"You are right that I haven't kept you advised. It's been low on my radar screen. I have found the need to be better disciplined in prioritizing and sticking to those priorities, in order to get done the things that need to be done and to preserve my own sanity. The activities that have the highest impact for members, and keep AILA running, have the highest priority. Whatever you have decided today is the most important thing in the world is your priority--not AILA's and not mine. You may have succeeded in bullying dissenters from posting on the message center, but that doesn't mean they aren't expressing themselves. I hear from quite a few when you throw your tantrums, and what I consistently hear is to not waste AILA's time on your latest plea for attention. It is good advice, and in fact is my obligation to the membership as a whole. I will look into these issues you raise, and will get to a resolution, but will not drop everything to pursue them. You always get an answer. You may not get it in the timeframe you demand, and you may not like the answer, but an answer eventually is forthcoming.

"I'm sure you'll post this on the message center and heaven knows where else. But don't edit--post it in its entirety."

It's difficult to know where to begin to critique this. Clearly I have gotten under Crystal's skin, and no doubt she is upset that her power and authority and image have been usurped - whether from the posting of her current $248,000 salary and her 27% raise in 2009 (I wonder what the 2011 raise was), to AILA being forced to post its tax return (IRS Form 990) on InfoNet from now on (although conveniently the return for 2011 apparently won't be filed or posted until after this year's annual conference, thus preventing further embarrassment to AILA), to AILA being forced to announce how few people actually vote in AILA's "elections" (although they are still resisting posting the individual vote totals). But those are all matters of substance, worthy of discussion and debate, and not inherently personal (as the salary is required to be disclosed in the tax return and the members have a right to know anyway).

No, what makes Crystal Williams' actions so pitiful, so reeking of desperation, is the ad hominem nature of her attack, and her multiple mischaracterizations (to use a charitable term). Her ridiculous claims that I have "bullied dissenters" from the Message Center (in case you haven't noticed, I'm the dissenter), that I have been throwing "tantrums" rather than prompting thoughtful discussions and her "but don't edit - post it in its entirety" closing (when it has NEVER been demonstrated that I have ever edited her or anyone else's comments to even remotely distort their meaning) are simply pathetic. Maybe not as pathetic as the failure of the elected officers to call Crystal to account for her unjustified personal attack on a fellow member, but as we all know, it's Crystal and the rest of the permanent national staff who run AILA, not the elected officers who rotate through on a yearly basis.

My long-overdue suggestions to make AILA more transparent are certainly not a "plea for attention", another distortion by someone who seems to have a habit of engaging in them. I have consistently stated I have no desire to run for AILA office, nor do I think that only the people who run for or hold office should have a say and be listened to. Every time I have made a suggestion I started with a well-reasoned case, supported by facts. And every time, because AILA leadership disliked the messenger as much, if not more, than the message, the response (if any) was to deflect, distort, and dissuade; in short, anything other than to address the issue to the person who raised it and, when finally compelled to respond, to make it seem like it was their idea. But this has nothing to do with "pleas for attention" or recognition; it has to do with the intellectual dishonesty of how Crystal Williams and the rest of the leadership has acted. All I've ever done is try to get AILA to open up and share basic information with the general membership - just like AILA always does with the Federal Government - and all I - and by extension the rest of the general membership - ever get in return is a slap in the face, decisions made in closed chambers, and "announcements" conveying specious rationales.

The ExCom is fighting a losing battle, and they know it. When asked to post the tax returns, they danced around until they finally knew they had no choice and said they will (as of yet) do so, rather than simply nipping the issue in the bud and agreeing from the get-go, not to mention that they couldn't "advise" me of this decision because that would make it seem like I won. I don't need the ExCom to tell me when I've won; the facts speak for themselves. When I suggested that they nominate multiple candidates for office and post the individual vote totals, they played the same delaying game: first they announce that they will announce only the overall number voting, but have already given hints that they will listen to the members' wishes and the strategic plan's promise of transparency and thus announce the individual vote totals. There's also no doubt in my mind that soon they will start to nominate at least two candidates for each position. Again, the facts will speak for themselves. As with all of the recommendations I made back on April 18 in my article "Recommended Changes to Make AILA More Transparent and Effective", the ExCom, including Crystal Williams, will be forced to listen to reason, have a truly open debate, and institute these or very similar recommendations. Does anyone really believe the insider deals or overseas junkets will continue as before, or that the general membership's views on AILA's advocacy efforts won't be more solicited and taken into account?

As stated above, I received Crystal's email at 5:52 PM. At 11:28 AM the very next morning Crystal posted her email (above) on the Message Center with the following comment: "I see that Ken has been quick to post other correspondence on this subject, but not my response. So I will go ahead and share it here." Thus the Executive Director clearly implied that I was afraid or embarrassed or whatever rationale her inexplicable mind came up with to post her email. Seriously? On top of every other false accusation she throws at me, she now accuses me of being a coward and a hypocrite? Because I didn't respond immediately? How sad. How pitiful. How Crystal Williams.

And how AILA, because the elected officers stand by, say nothing (other than to criticize me, but never her), and thus condone such emotional and hypocritical behavior. This is the image they want AILA to present to the membership and the world at large? This is how they deal with members who dare to criticize the organization? Lovely. How inspiring to the new members who foolishly believe that AILA welcomes opposing viewpoints. How helpful to the opponents of CIR on Capitol Hill, who have new ammunition for ignoring AILA.

On October 20, 2011, in a related string about AILA governance on the Message Center, after Crystal came under some criticism for the above mentioned salary and 27% raise, Crystal posted the following (and here I have edited her remarks, but not the substance or tone):

"Sorry I was paying more attention to AILA matters, and attending to real issues like the 797s and prosecutorial discretion. I realize that a couple of you find our salaries outrageous. But, again, we are paying in line with the prevailing wages for nonprofits in the DC area for the kinds of jobs we do. Many of us who came from practice took deep pay cuts to come here, but find the trade-offs worthwhile enough of the time to hang around…Tomorrow morning I will return to doing what AILA pays me to do. Feel free to continue to discuss, but I won't be here. I'll be doing my job." [Emphasis added.]

And then on October 22 she posted:

"I fully intended to have no further part of this string or its cousin, the string on the economics of practice survey. But, reflecting on the past roller coaster of a week, I see some things that I want to share…And the governance issues here are always worth discussing. As a veteran of countless such discussions, both as a staffer and before that as an engaged member in practice, I know how difficult these issues are. As a staffer, I am staying out of that discussion. My job is to work with whatever governance structure the membership chooses, and to provide the leadership with whatever literature and input from external experts they want to inform the discussion." [Emphasis added.]

[Ken R: she calls herself a "staffer", but that's like calling the President of the United States a "bureaucrat".]

On October 21, 2011, AILA Past President David Leopold chimed in with:

"Ken, bottom line is the national staff bend over backward to get AILA members all the information they need about any issue of concern whether about administration, governance, or immigration issues. I have been in national AILA leadership now for a decade. To the contrary, AILA national staff spends hours and hours making sure that every member's questions and concerns are addressed in a professional, respectful, and timely manner. Nobody is treated in a condescending manner. That is simply not part of the culture of AILA. We get enough of that from the government and courts. We have some serious issues to contend with. Let's use our energy to fight the battles that matter." [Emphasis supplied]

AILA is not some secret society where only the ExCom gets to debate issues in their Star Chamber, where no transcript is ever produced so no one ever knows what issues were presented and in what manner, and who supported what and who opposed, and at the end of the day there is this Politburo-like unanimity with only announcements but no justification. If the ExCom spent only half as much energy on being open and inviting concerned members to occasionally discuss things directly with them, maybe they would have more credibility and respect. All institutions resist change; it is the nature of the beast. But Crystal Williams and the rest of the ExCom resist more because it comes from me; they are so blinded by their dislike for me that they can't see any merits of the message. That's not good enough, and says more about AILA than it does about Ken Rinzler.

In closing, I don't expect any of the elected officers of the ExCom to publicly rebuke the Executive Director, a fellow member, regardless of how poorly her behavior reflects upon AILA and, by extension, them; I don't live in a dream world. But by removing the emperor's clothes layer by layer, people are beginning to see just how much hypocrisy resides in AILA's leadership structure, and that if you don't agree with the party line, your views are not worthy of respect.

About The Author

Kenneth Rinzler is an immigration lawyer in Washington, DC, and a frequent visitor to consular posts, having now traveled to 40 countries. A graduate of Georgetown University and Seton Hall University School of Law, he is a member of the District of Columbia, Indiana, New Jersey, and U.S. Supreme Court Bars. In addition to authoring articles for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), he has written on immigration law for the German American Chamber of Commerce. Before specializing in immigration law, he spent nearly ten years working as a legislative assistant and counsel to a U.S. Congressman, and thus has an intimate knowledge of Federal legislative and administrative procedures

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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