AYPN 'Moving Forward' After E-mails Leaked

A fast-growing organization dedicated to developing professionalism among young Arkansans is trying to "move forward" after the public airing of internal e-mails suggesting an effort to ensure that the Arkansas Young Professionals Network was controlled by politically conservative men.

The e-mails, some with subject lines reading "AYPN Mastermind Note," refer to the group's plan as "a living document that began with our first meeting at Buffalo Grill and is daily becoming the document that will take AYPN and us ... as its directors, to the next level," according to one written in late January by AYPN Executive Director William Porterfield.

Another one, written Feb. 2 by Craig Boes, director of AYPN's membership committee, says, "In order to keep people from thinking our organization is discriminatory we should probably appoint a female to this position. And since we have a choice she might as well be attractive."

The e-mails appeared publicly Oct. 18 on two Web logs, the Arkansas Times' daily blog and "Blake's Think Tank," overseen by Blake Rutherford, director of public communications at Stone Ward advertising agency. Both Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, and Rutherford say the e-mail packages were dropped off anonymously that day. A source who asked to remain unnamed shared the e-mails with Arkansas Business last week.

The e-mails signaled efforts to sway the civic organization's February 2007 leadership election in favor of select Republicans and somehow parlay that into the leadership of the Arkansas Federation of Young Republicans.

For example, one reads, "I've attached a listing of our members who joined since 1/1/06. These are the prime candidates for swaying this election."

The internal fallout from the e-mails was less than dramatic: Two members - both female - resigned from leadership positions with AYPN. No other changes have been made.

Yolanda Hugg, who has held various leadership roles with AYPN and is the current national committeewoman with the Young Republicans, and Karen Junot, former director of AYPN's professional development committee, both resigned their positions with AYPN because of the e-mails.

Hugg at first did not want to comment for this story, but later issued this statement by e-mail to Arkansas Business:

"I have gained a lot from AYPN both professionally and personally," Hugg wrote. "However, whether intentionally or unintentionally the current leadership has created a culture of exclusion that has focused more on their own personal advancement than the advancement of the organization and its members. As a board member, I felt like I was not able to fully participate and be taken seriously as a leader by my peers on the AYPN Board of Directors, which is why I resigned. I wish AYPN and the current leadership well and hope some productive change can take place as a result of this situation."

Junot's statement echoed Hugg's, but she added that AYPN should not be judged by the actions of a few.

"It's a great group and it has a great mission, but I couldn't stay in a leadership position after having seen how a select group within was operating," she said.

Randall Dixon, director of AYPN's communications committee, who was not among the group of e-mailers, said AYPN's leaders did meet and discuss the e-mails shortly after they became public but decided not to take action against directors who were involved.

"We decided that those who resigned were already enough fallout and that we would put it all behind us and move forward," Dixon said. "A lot of what was said in the e-mails that I saw was rah-rah type stuff regarding the election and could easily be misconstrued."

For the record, Dixon said, all the leadership positions went unopposed in the election, which was not compromised in any way.

E-mails long after the election, however, indicate more scheming among members of AYPN's board. In a March 8 e-mail, Randell Shelton, director of AYPN's economic development committee, wrote, "Regarding the retreat I think we need to establish the goals among ourselves then figure out how to smoothly implement them during the retreat ... . We've been able to get things through without any major problems so let's work on keeping that going - a little acting is kind of fun, but if we have to vote some things 5 to 3 let's be ready for that."

Dixon said he regretted that the electronic conversation became public but thought it was best to focus on the future of the organization since the next annual election of leaders is just two months away.

"We have accomplished a lot of good things in our short existence, and we have a lot more on the table to accomplish," he said. "It's best just to move forward, put this behind us and learn from it, and keep moving on."

No new e-mails have surfaced since the initial batch went public in October.

Although there is no official age limit for AYPN membership, most members range from their early 20s to their mid-30s. The officers involved in the e-mailing were in their mid-20s, according to a source who wanted to remain anonymous.

'Isolated Incident'

AYPN began in 2003 with the primary mission of keeping young, talented professionals in Arkansas to serve as the future executives of the state.

Its membership has been as high as 500, Dixon said, but generally fluctuates between 350 and 400.

Dixon said that aside from the two directors who already resigned, he doesn't expect a decrease in membership due to what he called the "e-mail controversy."

"I don't expect there to be too many repercussions because of this isolated incident," Dixon said. "Like I said, we've all but already moved on."

The timing of the e-mail controversy, however, came at an awkward moment for AYPN. The e-mails surfaced on local blogs the same day AYPN announced its biggest project to date: free wireless Internet service in the River Market District of downtown Little Rock.

AYPN partnered with Aristotle Inc. of Little Rock to launch free wireless service for users up and down President Clinton Avenue and launched the project Oct. 18.

City officials, including Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore, who sits on AYPN's board of advisors, were also in on the deal since much of that area includes city-owned buildings and properties. The group's board of advisors is separate from its board of directors, with the former made up of established central Arkansas business leaders.

Porterfield, AYPN's executive director and part of the e-mail group, declined comment regarding the e-mails. But did say the timing of the launch and the surfacing of the e-mails was obviously calculated by whoever turned them over to the press.

Porterfield went on to note that the project has been well received and that its log-in Web site received between 250 and 400 hits a day in its first month of service.

But even AYPN's flagship Wi-Fi project was also mentioned in e-mails that included banter about how to control the news cycle in advance of the launch and disparaging remarks about the Clinton Presidential Library, presumably because of its political affiliation.

"I think we should ask her to hold [news about the launch] until we do the full release," according to an e-mail from Shelton, referring to Elizabeth Bowles, president of Aristotle, who worked with AYPN on the project. "For a few reasons: first, we want to control the news cycle on the release of this project; second, if they're interviewing her my bet is the story will be about Aristotle and not AYPN - do we really want that to be the opening story for this project? Also, they will leave [out] an important soon to be announced partner - the Clinton Library (I really don't like typing that) - not to mention several others."

'No Denying the Crossover'

The connections between AYPN and the Arkansas Young Republicans run deep.

David Fort, who was executive director of AYPN in its first two full years of existence (2004-05), is the current chairman of the Arkansas Federation of Young Republicans. Shelton is AFYR's vice chair of membership and also director of AYPN's economic development committee; Stephen Compton is the director of AYPN's finance committee and also AFYR's Pulaski County chairman.

Compton denied any calculated plans to use one group as a springboard to another.

"The nature of being leaders means there are going to be a certain number of people more inclined to step up and take leadership positions," Compton said. "There's no denying the crossover, but from an AYPN standpoint, we certainly want to be an apolitical organization."

In one e-mail, however, Shelton referred to one member, whose AYPN profile lists the American Civil Liberties Union and progressivism as interests, and another unnamed member as "flaming lib[s]."

"... Well I just think the two of them (who are both new) need to get lost in the shuffle and not be counted as members or at least not get a renewal notice - just a thought!," Shelton wrote, ending the sentence with a "smiley face" emoticon.

Porterfield said AYPN proved its desire to be apolitical by scratching the bylaw that automatically made the sitting governor the chairman of the nonprofit's board of advisors. That change was made when Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, succeeded Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, and AYPN tapped Paul Harvel, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, to be chairman.

"That could probably be spun to look like we changed it because the new governor was from a different party, but that was really an effort to get away from partisanship on that board," Porterfield said.

However, an e-mail from Shelton on Feb. 20 referring to an AYPN luncheon at which Beebe was to speak seemed to make light of the rule.

"I know it might be tempting to grill Beebe, but in the context of the election I think it best to ask nothing (especially in light of the fact we're soon to boot him from the [board of advisors]) or ask some light questions about his ideas for the future of the state and watch him pile it higher and deeper for fun," Shelton wrote.

Brantley, the politically liberal Times editor, said the e-mails initially reminded him of the Jaycees civic group that was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s.

"In that case it was a robust civic organization, male, very politically active, that every young businessman with high aspirations wanted to be a part of," he said. "It was long on guys that were good at back-slapping and networking and politicking."

Brantley said AYPN seemed to be made up of the same kind of people.

"The Jaycees ended up burning themselves out after all of that ambition and hobnobbing went unchecked for so long, and indictments started turning up," he said. "I certainly don't think based on these e-mails that anything that serious was going on, but I think it's easy to draw some similarities to what can happen when things like this begin brewing."

Both Porterfield and Compton downplayed the e-mails and offered assurances that AYPN is not politically motivated nor biased against women in leadership or membership.

"The content of those e-mails in no way represents what AYPN is about or the true feelings of the leadership or members of this organization," Compton said. "We have a strong focus on moving forward and proceeding with a lot of the positive things we have in the works for the young professionals here."