ATEK: The Great White Hoax (Pt. 3)

ATEK: The Great White Hoax (Pt. 3)

April 4, 2011ATEKExpat Lifereportage6255Views

By Iwazaru

This is the third installment in an ongoing series about ATEK.  Read Part 1 and Part 2.

In May of 2010, KangNam Labor Law Firm (KLLF) found itself in a rather intriguing position given its access to ATEK via the Legal Assurance Program (LAP), a program which provided legal services for teachers.  KLLF’s appearance in English media here also gave it priceless publicity that brought foreigners in legal binds to its doors.  Yet, within months, the number of ATEK members enrolled in the LAP dropped, ATEK removed the Legal Assurance announcement from its Web site and at present, ATEK has distanced itself from the firm.  Another great opportunity and service for ATEK was lost.

That same May, Reyes I. Galvan, an American teacher, discovered the law firm following his own labor dispute as a teacher for an outsourced after-school program at a public school in Seoul.  Interested in immigration, labor and constitutional law, Galvan expressed a desire to join the firm as a kind of intern who could facilitate outreach to expat workers who needed help.  “I joined K-Labor because it was a great opportunity to be involved in the kind of law I want to study while making a difference in the life of foreign workers who need help but are lost, much like I was,” said Galvan.

Quickly Galvan learned of ATEK as approximately 40 of its members, mostly leadership figures, were signed up for the LAP at the time.  Another foreigner and associate ATEK member, Gerald Staruiala a paralegal who specialized in foreigner’s labor affairs, was already with the law firm and acted as a sort of recruiter for the LAP.  As early as 2008, Staruiala had been reaching out to teachers who needed help, even on Dave’s ESL.  Staruiala became a nexus between ATEK and the firm bringing in members who were willing to pay the monthly fee of 20,000 won for access to the legal services—mediation, conflict resolution and assistance filing claims—offered by the firm on a group retainer.  When recently reached for comment about his involvement with ATEK and the LAP, Staruiala only wrote in an e-mail, “I am no longer providing any form of services for any law firms in Korea as of August 31, 2010.”

By that August, Galvan had joined ATEK and was given the title Director of Legal Assurance Program, taking over for Staruiala, whereby, according to Galvan, he would only suggest the law firm to those whom approached him with legal issues.  “I was not promoting it,” Galvan insists.  Simply this meant that if Galvan were at an ATEK event, he would only tell people who first mentioned a legal problem that he was associated with the law firm. One gets the sense that he did not want to look like he was pimping for KLLF, which some critics could take issue with.  To no surprise, Galvan says that he slowly began to see the numbers of the LAP decline.  “It went from around 40 down to 20 and eventually near zero,” said Galvan.  “I think people just stopped following through with their payments.”

Not long after joining ATEK, friends and acquaintances began suggesting that Galvan seek the vacant Chair position of the Seoul Provincial/Metropolitan Association (PMA) previously held by the Internal Communications officer who’d gone on to a National executive officer position.  Galvan’s own interest in organizing began at the University of Michigan where he was a member of the Korean Student’s Association and Students Organizing for Labor Equality.  The opportunity to join an association that was working to help teachers appealed to him much as legal interests drove him to join KLLF.  In September he submitted a letter of intent to ATEK laying out his general mission.  “I told them ‘I can help you use the membership more effectively and increase the value of the organization,’” Galvan said.  At the end of September he was officially elected.  It would only take a month for problems to begin.

Galvan held his first Seoul PMA meeting as chair in early October at a Coffee Bean in northern Seoul with five other members and a graduate student who was researching non-profit organizations.  Galvan was eager to get started.  “I was excited to get to work as there had been a leadership vacuum,” Galvan explained referring to the numerous exits from leadership posts in ATEK and, specifically, the Seoul PMA.  Galvan says his main proposal at the meeting was a “boots on the ground” campaign that would put officers on the street to raise awareness.  “The idea was to get officers in the Seoul PMA to get out there, sit at high volume locations and just ‘fish,’ to talk to people who might be interested and tell people more about us or about an event we were planning.”

The first event the PMA worked on was a legal clinic in conjunction with KLLF to be held at the Itaewon Hannam Global Center.  A fairly simple concept, thought Galvan.  Plan the date, make pamphlets, distribute the pamphlets and hold an event where they’d provide teachers with basic legal advice.  But right away Galvan got his first of many lessons in ATEK’s byzantine Bureaucracy—a page out of the National leadership’s “Micromanagement 101” textbook.  “We had a hard time really doing anything with the idea because all communications had to be approved by the National leadership,” said Galvan.  Basically, the National executives wanted a hand in every aspect of the Seoul PMA’s activities, even if it disrupted, diminished and derogated the association’s mission to improve things.  The pamphlets for the legal clinic were exhibit one for Galvan.  The Seoul PMA received approval for the basic design from ATEK’s National Communication officer Robert Ouwehand after Ouwehand made revisions.  Pamphlets are external communications, right?  “They were approved by Rob Ouwehand, whom I was told I had to get things approved by but just as we were about to distribute, we were told that Rob did not have the authority and that we were in violation of some rules,” explained Galvan.  Consequently, the clinic was rescheduled several times much to the dismay of the Seoul PMA.  “It was rescheduled something like four times in as many weeks with the last happening less than a week before the event, “said Galvan, adding that the damage was obvious when they finally held the event.  “About seven people showed up.”

This bureaucratic bungling is endemic in ATEK but the National executives either steer clear of addressing it when asked or pretentiously point to the hallowed bylaws.  “Holding up the rules and avoiding ethical compromises to stay true to the principles of the organization is a challenge that presents itself time and time again,” wrote President Oh Jaehee in an e-mail.  “Our list of bylaws is a long and involved document, and not all our members know it as well as I do—I have to keep my eye out to make sure that things are being done by the book.”  With the Seoul PMA and Galvan, Oh and other National executives were certainly keeping their eyes out for “ethical compromises” including pamphlets printed without National authorization from the “right” people.

Galvan’s next run-in with the National leadership came mid-October at the KOTESOL Conference on the campus of Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul where he met the man who’d eventually seek to banish him from ATEK, National Internal Communications officer Russell Bernstein.  ATEK had a booth at the Conference where interested individuals could learn more about the association and both Bernstein and Galvan showed up for the two-day event.  “I was ready to go,” said Galvan who arrived at 9 a.m. to find the Bernstein setting up.  Bernstein, a former athlete who stands well over 6 feet tall, is described by those who’ve met him as an imposing physical presence.    Galvan stands 5’ 9”, is of medium build and would disappear into a crowd quickly.  During that first day, a man approached the ATEK booth asking for help regarding unpaid wages.  He was not an ATEK member.  Galvan spoke with him and then gave him a KLLF card so he could seek some consultation if he wanted.  Immediately Bernstein approached.  “He was intense,” said Galvan adding that Bernstein was not pleased with Galvan’s behavior.  “He said, ‘while you’re here for ATEK you can’t hand out cards and if you’re gonna talk about the law firm, you have to go home.”  Galvan defused the confrontation by saying, “I won’t do it here then,” implying that he could do it elsewhere at the conference.  According to Galvan, the Bernstein said, “Well I can’t follow you around.”  Bernstein was making sure things were done by the “book.”

A few days after the conference, Galvan spoke with Chair of the Ethics Committee Charlotte Lawrence who mentioned a possible “conflict of interest” (a phrase that the National leadership would repeatedly use over the following months in a campaign against Galvan).  However, ATEK’s leadership will not address the event specifically only saying, “the issues arose as internal matters in the association and have been resolved internally,” according to President Oh.  Giving advice to nonmember teachers was not part of the bylaws.  In addition, referring nonmembers to one law firm might have appeared controversial.  Lastly, ATEK desperately needs members and that was on the leadership’s mind when people approached with a problem.  “Sign up first, then we’ll help you,” could have been an ATEK slogan.  President Oh refers to ATEK’s desire for NGO status as a central reason for strict oversight and firm “principles of the organization.”  “We are seeking NGO status, so we have to walk the line carefully and be diligent about the ethical standards of the organization, and helping the leaders of the local PMAs understand and adhere to the rules, even the ones that may strike them as silly, has been a challenge from time to time.”  Galvan’s open approach to teachers must have been one of those “times.”  And he wasn’t done.

ATEK held a national meeting via Skype on October 24 with six members in attendance including Galvan and Bernstein.  One issue came to a head:  the Busan and Daegu PMA Chairs had lost access to some officer’s files on the ATEK Web site, which, up until a week before, they’d had access to, and they wondered what had happened.  “The problem was they cut off a lot of people’s access to files so we couldn’t contact members or set up activities by e-mail, text or Facebook,” said Daegu PMA Chair Pete Garcia, a teacher from Los Angeles.  “They took over and we were deaf, dumb and blind.”  Bernstein who’d never been elected to the National Council but was instead appointed a National officer by Greg Dolezal, the president at the time, had unilaterally restricted the access.  He’d single-handedly prevented chairs of PMAs across the nation from accessing forms and documents that they needed to sign up new members, to understand details about previous members and to contact current members.  Bernstein allegedly claimed confidentiality concerns—former members personal information and any legal cases covered by a former officer—and said he’d provide any necessary documents per approved request.  As National Internal Communications officer, he would handle everything.

But, instead of condoning Bernstein’s actions and supporting his proposal, a suggestion for a motion arose among the members and Galvan stepped in to make it.  The motion called for access to vacant officers’ files “under the condition that [the officers] are trained to perform those roles first,” according to Galvan.  The motion got support from everyone except for Bernstein who reportedly said, “You’re making a mistake.”  Garcia sensed futility from the get-go.  “We all voted and won but didn’t get anything,” he said.  Bernstein wasn’t budging—the motion and vote hadn’t adhered to the bylaws.  Still Galvan’s motion also stated that the motion would not take effect until “the vote of every National Council member currently in Korea” was counted.  Furthermore, the motion stated that “seven days” would be given for voting.  The National executives rejected the vote.

Nonetheless, after Busan Employment & Legal Issues Officer Adrian Lake made the second, “procedurally correct” motion,—much to the leadership’s chagrin—a “procedurally correct” vote was taken.  Again, the motion passed—let PMA Chairs access non-confidential files for the benefit of ATEK. Bernstein and Ethics Chair Lawrence, tacitly (at first) backed by President Oh, issued a litany of denunciations, declaring the vote null and void because, again, the bylaws prevented the National Council and PMAs from accessing “personal information.”  At the time, the unelected Bernstein and uninvited Lawrence were prohibited from entering National Council forums to discuss the issue as stated in the bylaws.  Ignoring this, they failed to adhere to the same rules they’d consistently deferred to in previous conflicts.  A flurry of vitriol filled forums and e-mail inboxes.  Aside from countless forum posts, more than 800 e-mails flew through cyberspace in less than a few weeks.  The war was on.

In Seoul, the PMA officers knew they were the target.  Seoul Ethics officer Bryan Hollingsworth found himself at the center of the shit-storm just two months after entering ATEK.  “It was a battle of egos,” said Hollingsworth.  “Charlotte Lawrence committed an ethics violation by entering the forums even though she was the Ethics officer,” Hollingsworth explained highlighting the hypocrisy of the National leadership.  “None of them wanted to work past this—there was too much pride.”  One word that Hollingsworth used again and again while struggling to explain his time in ATEK was “clusterfuck.”  Months after the meltdown, Hollingsworth still seems aloof and befuddled.  “I’ve been in this organization since September and I still haven’t figured it out,” he said.

On November 3, at 4:29 a.m., things got more bizarre when Bernstein shut down ATEK’s Web site without consulting anyone.  He then sent out an e-mail titled “Temporary Shutdown:  ATEK Website, Forums and Email Addresses” declaring:

Dear ATEK Officers,
I have shutdown the website temporarily.  We will inform you when it is back on.  I am sorry for the inconvenience this may cause, but there are some major internal issues we need to resolve immediately.  All operations outside the National Executive are suspended until further notice.  Enjoy your free time.

Numerous members say the site was down about a week and another odd e-mail titled “ATEK Apology” sent out by Bernstein on November 10, at 2:47 p.m. confirms this.  Among other things Bernstein writes, “ATEK emails are working, and the forums are up,” to begin.  He follows with clear prevarication, writing, “You all deserve an apology from me and from each other.”  “From each other”?  Several paragraphs later he presents his excuses which include writing “progress reports for over 80 students,” and the observations that his “room is filthy,” he smokes “too much” and doesn’t “eat right.”  During the Web site’s downtime no new member could sign up and, by most measures, ATEK was on a virtual lockout staged by one man.  An ex-member Ryan Cox wrote, “Since there was no physical manifestation of ATEK in the real world, he [Bernstein] basically destroyed the organization for about a week.”  For his actions Bernstein was given a seven-day suspension by President Oh.

All the while, the National Executive members end game was taking shape—Galvin needed to go, one way or another.  And four days after Bernstein restored the ATEK Web site, Galvan received the following e-mail from President Oh at 11:48 p.m. on Sunday, November 14:

Dear Reyes,
Thank you for your time and efforts with ATEK.  You have done a lot for us in many ways.  Unfortunately, a lot of what has transpired lately has been very damaging to the Association.  As a result, I do not feel like I would be acting in the best interest of General Members if I did not ask for your letter of resignation.
I do not want this issue to escalate any more than it already has.  These instances are always damaging for the Association, and it would be best if we just parted ways professionally so that no one burns any bridges.
Please send me your official letter of resignation in writing and by email.  It doesn’t have to be long.
Thank you, Jae

Less than 30 minutes later, Galvan would respond with a single, “No,” saying he’d “consider resigning” if Bernstein and Lawrence officially resigned along with Oh herself under the condition that all four (Galvan included) not “be allowed to hold any officer position in ATEK for two years.”

Oh’s reaction to Galvan’s e-mail may well have been the nadir for ATEK (it sure ranks in the top five) in terms of ethical conduct and professionalism.  During working hours on that Monday, November 15, Oh phoned Galvan’s boss and Managing Partner of KLLF, Jong Bong Soo, to inform him of a “conflict of interest” and to ask him to hasten Galvan’s resignation from ATEK.  Galvan was furious.  “To put it simply, a national officer called a local officer’s employer,” said Galvan.  “That act alone was egregious enough but it is compounded by everything else that happened with the National leadership.”  KLLF still had a space on ATEK’s Web site but, according to the firm, it wasn’t generating any traffic.  Oh completely severed that relationship in a third call to Jung during which she threatened to remove the firm’s space if something wasn’t done about Galvan.  Nothing was done and KLLF disappeared from the ATEK site.  Ethic’s officer Hollingsworth saw the ethical breach as just one more in a series that centered around Oh’s affinity for and defense of the National executives.  “She was always siding with the National people,” said Hollingsworth, “and this was one more example of her going too far in her fight against Seoul.”

Oh ignored Galvan’s repeated attempts to contact her until Thursday, November 18 when she got around to sending an e-mail in which she offered no apology but instead defended her actions writing that she as president is “responsible for the smooth operation of the organization, which included a duty to protect the integrity and the image of integrity of ATEK as well as to protect the ATEK’s officers.”  She added, “As such, I am well within my rights to explain to Mr. Jung that ATEK is, and will continue to be, vulnerable to conflict of interest accusations, as long as you are an officer of ATEK.”  Later in the e-mail, she references the “good faith affidavit” that Galvan signed which protects ATEK from “acts of malice or ill intent by those who may wish to harm it.”  Oh and the association were immune and infallible.  Period.  The comedy of errors and egos carried on, and in a rather amusing, inept and juvenile response to an attempt by Galvan to reach National Communications officer Ouwehand, Ouwehand wrote:

Reyes you wanted to talk.
I’m sorry, but my phone is completely non-functional right now.

But why didn’t Galvan just move on?  Why stay in an organization that couldn’t get out of its own way?  Why maintain a defunct position where around every corner the National leadership has set up a checkpoint to oversee your every move?  Galvan first refers to the past in response to such questions:  “I’ve been in other organizations and had this happen before.  I’m not putting up with it again where leadership handicaps the organization’s progress.”  As a member of the Korea Student Association, Galvan says he was “bullied around” by members of the leadership.  He also spoke of ATEK’s ability to blacken the reputations of ex-members:  “It has a powerful name and they can snuff out small people.  They threatened to sully my name.  I do public interest work and I don’t want my name sullied.”

So Galvan and other Seoul PMA officials dug in for what would end up being a three-month standoff with the National leadership.  Numerous current and former members claim that ATEK stopped operating as neither side blinked.  President Oh ordered an independent investigation into the ordeal that was conducted by Tom Rainey-Smith (so much for independence) and “seriously considered” by the Ethics Committee (yes, the same committee that Lawrence was chair of).  As expected, the report laid blame at the Seoul PMA’s doorstep with a “To Galvan” card on top.  Other reports and votes within ATEK regarding Galvan show obvious meddling and manipulation by the leadership.  In one case, Bernstein was in control of the voting process and in the case of a tie, President Oh had the deciding vote.

As the story unfolded signs appear that indicate ATEK drew its allegiances to the southeastern edge of the peninsula.  With Seoul all but shut down and additional issues with the Gyeonggi PMA, Busan continued to operate.  Daegu Chair Garcia expressed his own frustration with what he called “regionalism” given that President Oh resides in South Korea’s second largest city.  “Busan can and does do more events than anywhere else.  It’s like ATEK care more about that region,” said Garcia.  Former ATEK member Mike Yates made the same assertion: “For a while they tried to focus on Seoul when Greg [Dolezal] was president.  They had a lot of meetings after Bernstein was moved to a national position.  But they couldn’t keep Bernstein out of things and three months later, the meetings just stopped.  Then it was back to Busan.”  When asked about Seoul’s importance, President Oh wrote in an e-mail, “We have members all over the country, and they’re equally important to us.  It’s true that a large number of them are concentrated in Seoul, but foreigners living in that city have access to a much wider array of services than our members living in rural areas across the country.”  To be fair, with only one-third of PMA positions filled, Oh has bigger worries than Seoul.

In February of 2011, Galvan—who was recently promoted to Managing Director at KLLF and continues to help teachers with legal issues—and a handful of Seoul officers, including Hollingsworth, finally vacated the PMA.  The Gyeonggi and Jeollabuk Chairs also departed.  Bernstein, who wrote in an e-mail that one of his top accomplishments while with ATEK was the “Formation of functioning National Council, enabling democratic decision-making,” is now back in America where he’s started Global Team Players (GTP) a supposed NGO for athletic, professional and social development.  In his wake is the current emaciated, limping and lost ATEK.  Over the past two weeks more members have jumped ship according to correspondence received by The Three Wise Monkeys.  Is this the final act of the tragedy or must the show go on?  Will ATEK disband, rebuild, rename and relaunch with a leaner, smarter, less bureaucratic base.  Looking back at a little more than two years of operation ATEK would be wise to heed the words of George Santayana:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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