Since I last wrote, Patrick and I continued to face obstruction on access to corporate records and communications. Recently some things have changed for the better.
In late October 2019, AMSAT President Joe Spier had asserted on a teleconference that allowing Patrick Stoddard and I to see ordinary corporate records would lead to us suing AMSAT-NA, therefore we simply couldn’t see them. He claimed it was a personnel matter, even though Patrick and I have never been and are not employed by AMSAT. He suggested we had ulterior motives or a conflict of interest. We do not. Refusing to answer questions and denying us access to ordinary corporate records prevented me and Patrick from doing the job that members elected us to do.
For this teleconference, Joe Spier brought in a lawyer. This was a big surprise. The funds for this lawyer, it turns out, were paid for by AMSAT. There is no record in the minutes about this expense. The lawyer is not licensed to practice in Washington D.C., where AMSAT is headquartered. This means the law firm cannot represent AMSAT in court. This law firm has been used multiple times, by multiple officers of AMSAT, going back to 2018.
No board meetings were scheduled after the annual meeting in October 2019 at Symposium. This was an unusual practice for AMSAT. It was a departure from the traditional schedule that we were expecting, and it definitely slowed things down.
Patrick and I repeatedly requested a board meeting. Three members are required to request a board meeting. However, no other board members joined in this request. The other board members, presumably denied access to the same documents that we were, expressed no opinion about this matter at all and took no action to address it.
Why suddenly stop the meetings? Did things suddenly get super easy when we were elected? Did votes suddenly become unnecessary? No, of course not. AMSAT is in, according the immediate past treasurer and the current one, in an “unsustainable financial position”. That reason alone is reason to meet regularly, come together, and support the one current fundraising project - Kidzsat.
Other than fundraising, Patrick and I wanted to address two major issues. The direction of ITAR policy work and what appeared to be several unauthorized expenses. Patrick uncovered the expenditures by repeatedly asking questions about the financial reports. Some of these questions were answered, and the answers contained surprising and disappointing details.
We wanted a discussion and a redirection on ITAR/EAR policy, and we wanted answers on the unauthorized expenditures. Without a board meeting, we could not make a lot of progress, especially with officers refusing to answer questions about either subject.
With respect to regulatory law issues, we wanted AMSAT to take advantage of the public domain carve outs in ITAR and EAR. We both believe that enshrining a proprietary ITAR policy is completely wrong for an amateur radio 501(c)(3) with heavy educational focus. AMSAT has spent the $10,000 authorized at the 2018 Symposium in Huntsville on consultants that, so far, have summarized a very traditional proprietary path. The consultants did not provide a policy at Symposium. This is one of the biggest reasons we stood for election, was to stand up for a different path forward, while there was still time to save money and effort.
I asked to see the instructions that were given to the ITAR consulting firm. There was no reply. I submitted questions for the consultants to Joe Spier. The consultants never received them. I made multiple efforts to write the board members and raise the discussion. This was fruitless.
I wrote a letter asking AMSAT to support a commodity jurisdiction request to the State Department in support of open source amateur satellite work. This effort takes the opposite approach of the AMSAT consultants. It asks, for the first time, for a State Department ruling on whether amateur satellite work, of the type that we all want to see, falls under ITAR or not. As of today, we do not have anything like this. We do not have any landmark decision to base our work upon. What we have is fear, uncertainty, and doubt. This request was finalized and submitted today, 20 February 2020.
Regardless of the outcome of the decision, whether it is to move amateur satellite work out from under ITAR or to assert that it must be under ITAR, we will have a solid legal answer in the US. Obviously, I and many others want amateur satellite work to be ruled as not subject to ITAR. This places it within EAR. From EAR, public domain work can proceed in a way that our hobby has not enjoyed in decades. But even if it’s ruled as subject, it’s an improvement over guessing and assuming.
This letter was sent mid-December 2019 to AMSAT and a number of other related organizations, all of which have a huge interest in this ruling. There was no answer at all from AMSAT. The letter was not sent to the board for discussion. It was not even acknowledged as received.
This is the sort of work that AMSAT should have done years ago. I am personally paying for this legal effort, and Open Research Institute is the organization making the application. I firmly believe AMSAT-NA should have been the one to do this, but if it’s successful, AMSAT-NA can take full advantage of it. It’s as win-win as one can get.
On 28 January 2020, Patrick and I delivered a legal demand letter to Joe Spier and the lawyer he hired, and AMSAT paid for. This letter clearly stated the legal facts about denying Directors of a corporation access to ordinary corporate documents. AMSAT was in violation of DC corporate code and the reasons given to date for denying us access and answers were completely legally irrelevant. Specific case law was cited and remedies were listed. A deadline of 7 February 2020 was given.
Joe Spier resigned on 31 January 2020. Neither he nor the law firm replied.
Unlike with our previous requests for a board meeting, one was scheduled pretty damn quick to elect a new President. Joe Spier resigned on a Friday, and the board meeting was proposed for the coming Tuesday. I suggested that we take our time, use the 30 days notice resignation rule in our by-laws, and form a search committee. I thought this was an excellent opportunity to find a highly qualified president that would work with everyone, even people like Patrick and myself.
Paul Stoetzer, as Executive Vice President of AMSAT, was acting president. He could keep the job until the next annual board meeting without any action. However, he refused to delay the election. He set the election as one agenda item. The only other item was approval of the biannual financial report.
Ironically, this report says that AMSAT suffers from no legal threats. Somewhat of a stark contrast to the picture painted by the senior officers regarding me and Patrick. There was no response at all to the request to consider a search committee. No other board members responded to this proposal.
Given the short notice, I asked Bill Reed NX5R if he would consider being nominated for president of AMSAT. I had nominated him at the Symposium board meeting. He lost 5-2 at Symposium, but he replied that he was ready to serve and agreed to be nominated again now that the position was open. I wrote the board, told them I planned to nominate him, and circulated his resume in advance.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Bruce Paige nominated Clayton Coleman. Clayton Coleman had resigned as AMSAT Secretary on 24 September 2019. There wasn’t any discussion in advance of Clayton’s nomination. His credentials were not provided. Some of the other board members stated on the conference call that they’d met with Clayton, had discussed him running. It was obvious they had decided that they would vote for him in advance of the meeting. In other words, it didn’t matter who else was nominated.
Clayton won the election 4-3.
Patrick and I delivered a copy of the demand letter to the new President. On the afternoon of 7 February, the lawyer paid for by AMSAT requested a month delay. We consulted with our lawyer, and decided against waiting. We asked our lawyer to call the AMSAT lawyer, and AMSAT (through the lawyer) backed down completely, stating that yeah, ok, fine, we had to have access to all corporate records and documents.
Two days ago, the board of directors email archive was restored, and we could finally see the communications. Presumably, other financial and technical documentation will be available to us in short order. We can now get to work.
This is a huge victory for transparency, accountability, and access.
Or is it?
Why should we have had to fight for five months just to start our volunteer job? Why should we have to personally pay for expensive legal assistance to make AMSAT do the right thing? Why did Clayton Coleman suggest in a message to ANS (https://www.amsat.org/ans-047-amsat-news-service-weekly-bulletins-for-february-16th/) that AMSAT was not in violation of DC corporate code, days before anything was done to address the issues in the demand letter? What is the organization afraid of?
By denying any director access to corporate records, the organization was not complying with the law. Directors normally see a lot more than is publicly available on AMSAT's web site to meet their fiduciary obligations to the organization and its membership. There are a lot of documents that are never published to the website. Are we going to have to fight individually for each of those?
The good news here, is if (and only if) things keep going in the direction they are going, the answer is no, we won’t have to keep fighting for what we have the right to see.
Yes, Clayton’s article was a big surprise, and possibly premature, but it was evidence of the intent of some significant progress, and Clayton did follow through on restoring the email archive.
Clayton made very appreciated efforts to come see me at HamCation 2020. This was the first positive step forward that I had seen from any other senior officer or Director at AMSAT in over a year. He apologized for past treatment by AMSAT leadership, said internal processes were not where they should be, and declared that he wanted things to be different moving forward.
He said without qualification that the problems Patrick and I were facing needed to be addressed. He spoke in front of the people that happened to be at the ORI and TAPR booths. Clayton Coleman heard some blunt criticism from some of them and heard some from me. The most important part, to me, was an acknowledgement of the problems we were facing.
What problems are those? From our view it is a lack of cooperation from officers that truly, honestly believe that they can run AMSAT however they wish with extremely limited involvement from a largely apathetic and disconnected board of directors.
Here’s an example. The annual budget was delivered to the board meeting at Symposium at nearly the last minute. I abstained from voting on this budget. I had read through it, but the lack of detail, the amount of deficit spending, and the presentation of it as something the board was simply expected to rubber stamp was unnerving. It was evidence of some hard work in the year ahead.
I naively thought I would be well into the necessary details at this point, and not still getting treated like a hostile force.
When I say “hostile force” I mean not just resistance from other board members, which is normal when you have differing views, but things like multiple personal attacks on social media from multiple officers of AMSAT.
Patrick and I decided not to include the silly attacks on social media in our legal effort. It’s beneath us. Social media policy and the abuse of members, the treatment of volunteers, and social media policies are a big reason that Patrick and I both ran for Director. Those reasons appear to remain. The hot-headed and inaccurate attacks on members and leaders are even more surprising since the one and only threat to AMSAT that the current officers acknowledge is “bad publicity”. Not “lack of funding” or “technical failures”. No, the premier threat to AMSAT is “bad publicity”. This has been stated at Symposium, at HamCation, by Robert Bankston in the November/December 2019 Journal, and in board email.
When dissent is reflexively classified as bad publicity, then anyone disagreeing becomes an existential threat to the organization and must be attacked. That is the culture you currently have at the top. If you want this to change, then vote this summer and make a difference.
I don’t like AMSAT spending many thousands of dollars on unauthorized expenses. I especially don’t like it when the expenses are used to try to prevent me from doing a volunteer job that I am deeply committed to carrying out to the best of my ability.
I strongly believe that open source policies and procedures are the absolute best way forward for AMSAT and will continue to fight for and advocate for this at the board level as long as members are willing to send me in to do the job. I have literally put my money where my mouth is here with the Commodity Jurisdiction request.
Clayton proposed a “working session” for 3 March 2020. This will not be a board meeting, but it is the first actual work session, aside from the emergency board meeting to elect Joe Spier’s replacement, that we have had since the October 2019 Symposium annual meeting. The day after the working session was proposed, the board of directors email archives were restored.
My top priority for the working session is the budget.
What is yours? Let me know, and I will do my best to represent your views at this meeting, and the ones to come. I’m very optimistic that we will see a return to regular meetings and an improvement in processes and governance.
Thank you for the support over the past months. I refrained from public statements on the advice of the legal expert Patrick and I hired. This was good advice, but hard for an open source and transparency advocate to take!