Let me introduce myself: I am Jason Sylvester, aka Diogenes of Mayberry on social media. For the past year I have functioned as both the blog manager for AAI and as an unofficial advisor to the board. It is in my capacity as blog manager that I write this response and not as an official statement from AAI, which I am not authorized to issue, but which the executive members who do have authority have granted me permission to post.
Due to a recent series of allegations made on the Freethought Prophet’s podcast and Twitter feed, I became aware of a situation that happened in 2018 regarding the reorganization of AAI and the animosity this created with former affiliate member, Atheist Ireland. Upon learning that Freethought Prophet cohost, John Hamill, was a past Secretary of AAI and due to the seriousness of his posts, I asked for and received permission from the board to engage with John and Atheist Ireland president, Michael Nugent, about this issue in the hopes of resolving the situation.
On February 19th of this year, the three of us had a Zoom call to discuss what happened in 2018. A call that John recorded without my knowledge or consent. Had he asked for permission, I would in all likelihood have agreed. While it is not uncommon for people to record conversations, most people would agree that there is an expectation of privacy, and the basic courtesy of asking for permission first. When I asked him why he should have done this, he replied it was his distrust in AAI. While his distrust may be well-founded from his perspective, as I had reached out to him to let him express his side of the story to me, he had no reasonable expectation for which to mistrust me.
This call was roughly six weeks ago, and while John left after about two hours, Michael and I continued for another hour to discuss the details of a reconciliation. In the above text exchange, John quotes me as stating I wish to speak to Michael to get his recollection of events of ever having spoken with AAI president, Howard Burman; something which Howard had denied when he appeared on an FTP podcast. John implies that I am not being truthful as I didn’t remember one particular detail from a three-hour call from six weeks ago, in which a number of issues were discussed. John sent me an excerpt of his recording where Michael did clearly express that he had lengthy discussions with both past president Gail Miller and the current president Howard.
The Denial & the Rebuttal
I cannot speak to why Howard denied having ever spoken with Michael, and that he was never included in any emails. John stated that he has the emails, and Howard challenged him to produce them. John has done so in their blog post, including a screen capture of a Skype call that took place that included both Howard and Michael.
Accusations of Unfounded Impropriety
In our exchange, John frequently accused me (he splits hairs and pretends he is just speculating) of being dishonest, a completely unsubstantiated assertion on his part for which he has no evidence other than his own opinion.
And it is precisely because of this opinion and attitude, not only unjustly against me, but to AAI in general, that I have a skeptical approach to his claims and have undertaken my investigation to examine them objectively and not on his word alone.
I attempted to point out that what John presents as evidence, is no more than inclusion on emails and a call; it does not demonstrate that the two named parties directly communicated as he claims. It would be laughed out of court if he presented two people cc’d on an email as evidence they had spoken. Again, I concede that Michael has stated they have communicated. However, in reply, John then became both rude and repeatedly profane; these are only two such instances:
How inclined would others be to take seriously someone who behaves this way towards the person who is trying to help get to the bottom of things; let alone agree to keep investigating? I digress.
In addition to John’s challenge to Howard about communications, is the related issue of what he refers to as the 2018 ‘heist’ of the board at a ‘secret AGM.’ Of the two issues, John seems to be more concerned with Howard’s denials of speaking to Atheist Ireland than what I would consider the more serious allegation of usurping the organization, and the issue to which I have committed to investigating. As of this writing, I have requested access to records related to the 2018 AGM so that I may directly investigate John’s claim from their post linked above:
‘that Board illegitimately excluded at least 25 of the 36 national member organisations.’
This is a substantial allegation and one I take seriously, and why I have undertaken to investigate it properly. I do so with the objective and neutral approach that such a serious allegation requires, and why I refuse to just take John at his word. It is precisely because of John’s fondness for the dramatic as documented above, and below, that I approach this situation neutrally and wish to examine the facts for myself directly. Specifically, I wish to see if emails did not, as John contends without any evidence to prove his assertion, go out to all affiliates.
Further, the 2013 bylaws #15 & 29 stated:
‘Any Member whose annual fees (as adjusted for any waiver or reduction by the Board) have not been paid on time will forfeit their votes (if any) at any General Meeting…’
‘Associate Members may participate in General Meetings but have no voting rights.’
According to the records, at the time of the 2018 AGM, the membership fees for Atheist Ireland had lapsed and that is why they were not invited. John and Michael assert the exclusion of Atheist Ireland was done deliberately. While I concur that from their perspective it certainly may appear to have been deliberate, that does not necessarily make it so. Hence, my offer to look into it. My investigation will look at not only what emails went out, to which affiliates, and when, as bylaw #79 indicates notice must go out at least twelve weeks prior.
In 2016, while John was still Secretary of AAI, renewal invoices for 32 affiliates, which should have been sent out on January 1, 2016, were not sent out until August 3, 2016—seven months late. This was caused by inadequate availability of staff to do the work and poor understanding of the complex Salsa membership system. Let it be stated for the record, John Hamill was Secretary during this entire period and did not resign until February 2017. In December 2017, AAI migrated its membership data from the old Salsa system to a new one. The person who migrated the data had to rely on the system data which showed whether each affiliate was paid up, but did not record the sending of reminder invoices. AAI accepts that it was late sending out renewal invoices to Atheist Ireland and, possibly, to others, as per bylaw #14: ‘The Board shall set annual Membership fees for each category of membership, which must be paid in full within 60 days of receipt of an invoice by the Member’ and apologizes for that, but it does not imply malicious intent. There was no intention to exclude any affiliates from the 2018 AGM.
In one of our exchanges, I labeled John’s references to a ‘secret’ AGM as ‘inflammatory rhetoric.’ In a recent FTP podcast, John specifically mentioned that six affiliates were invited, and that proxy ballots and an agenda published before the so-called secret AGM. By John’s own admission then, this was not a secret AGM. It was only secret in his opinion because Atheist Ireland was not invited to attend the AGM. For John, this constitutes the evidence that the entire AGM was therefore a secret. Inflammatory rhetoric or not? You decide.
Board reports show AAI had 27 affiliates in July 2014 declining to 18 by May 2016 (individual memberships also declined from 420 in May 2013 [the peak] down to 255 by Jan 2016—the last date it was reported at board meetings). By the time data was migrated to the new system in November 2017, individual memberships were down to 113 and there were only three paid-up affiliates (38 affiliates had lapsed between 15 months and four years at the time of the 2018 AGM). The Membership Director was instructed by the board to recruit as many lapsed and new affiliates as possible in advance of the May 2018 AGM. The AAI vice-president checked the records for the AGM which he states indicate eight affiliates ended up voting (casting ten votes, as some affiliates had additional votes) at the AGM, and all were invited in accordance with the timetable established in the bylaws; claims which I will verify in my investigation, for which John has no evidence to claim otherwise as he has done repeatedly.
To complete the picture, AAI now has 53 affiliates and 428 individual members.
How John is able to state as a fact exactly how many were not invited, when he was no longer an AAI officer with access to those insights and details, I also leave for readers to decide about the accuracy of his claims. As he notes in the video capture above, at the ‘secret’ AGM only ‘half’ of the six supposedly invited attended, which would be in keeping with the pattern of disinterested affiliates at the time of the events.
What John leaves out of his frequent posts, conveniently for his narrative, is that following his departure AAI was teetering on the brink of financial collapse which is what necessitated the reorganization in the first place, as monthly expenditure for the membership system and producing Secular World exceeded income. AAI was within a year of bankruptcy at the time of the 2018 AGM had the board not intervened, a point which directly relates to his accusations of financial malfeasance. During John’s tenure, membership reached its peak in 2013 and had begun to decline until shortly after his departure.
John also claims that the board:
‘illegitimately appropriated all of the assets within Atheist Alliance International under their own personal control. These assets (including a bank account containing tens of thousands of dollars)’
This is wrong on several counts. First, John merely speculates as to 1) how much was in the accounts, and 2) implies that it has been ‘illegally appropriated’ and a ‘cabal deliberately removed transparency measures.’ As he is no longer involved in the inner workings of AAI, he has no basis for which to make this wholly unsubstantiated claim. Further, since his departure, AAI now has 53 affiliates and the bank account balance, accounting for dispersals to numerous campaigns, is greater than it was in 2018. Third, there was also nothing in the bylaws (before or after the 2018 AGM) which stated that the assets belonged to the affiliates. Any money paid into AAI’s accounts become the property of the legal entity, and were not ‘owned’ by its membership, again counter to John’s assertion that the board ‘illegally appropriates assets.’ There may have been a tacit understanding that AAI funds were to be used for affiliate campaigns, but this was not explicitly written into the bylaws.
Far from the malfeasance which John repeatedly implies, without any evidence, the situation would amply testify the opposite. Finally, if as John maintains, AAI misappropriated ‘tens of thousands of dollars’ why did he not report this to the authorities; and if he did, why did the authorities take no action?
Far from John’s contention, AAI board members, through hard work and sacrifice, transformed an organization that was catastrophically failing into a successful, growing one.
FTP Propaganda Continues
In addition to John’s allegations against me, one of his FTP guests, Barry Purcell (lower left of the video capture above) has joined the fray by adding his own unsubstantiated whiffs of impropriety. In what I can only assume to be the greatest display of nonpartisan commentary in the twenty-first century, Barry chimed in on my Twitter feed deliberately hinting at duplicity where none whatsoever was implied:
In reply, I pointed out to Barry that my writing ‘working behind the scenes to correct the situation’ was only an expression. However, this beacon of journalistic integrity and objective reporting, completely ignoring the obvious fact that it’s simply an expression, chose to double-down on his accusation and went a step further to openly state I was somehow being sinister:
This is just a further example of FTP embarking on a deliberate smear campaign of making many unjustified insinuations by reading into my wording a subtext which any objective reader can clearly see is not there. Additionally, when I stated that we’re working behind the scenes, what I meant is that an email has already gone to Michael Nugent, president of Atheist Ireland, to schedule a call for us to discuss a resolution to the matter. For good measure, those resolutions include board approval to begin addressing every point discussed in the three-hour call with John, Michael, and myself on February 19th. As this lengthy post fully attests, given the character limit on Twitter, I could hardly have explained myself in full and chose a bland phrase that Barry decided to assert was a further example of a lack of transparency.
Why did I not simply respond to Barry’s posts with this information? One, I am under no obligation to answer, and two, I was not going to dignify his trolling with a response. Once again, I put the matter to AAI’s membership to determine if I was being deliberately ‘sinister’ and ‘mafia-like’ (Barry’s reference to Omerta), or if Barry was intentionally and with deliberate malice making an entirely fictitious and wholly unfounded accusation to suit FTP’s narrative. Yet, it was Barry who pointed out to John in the video, that if proxy ballots and a schedule were sent beforehand, it couldn’t be a secret. How quickly those driven by an agenda forget and revert to form.
As clearly demonstrated, that while John may very well indeed have good reason to mistrust AAI over the events of 2018, he has repeatedly made statements purported to be facts which are nothing but his own opinions based on information he does not have, both about the 2018 AGM and my own integrity and honesty. In addition to his unsubstantiated claims, he has demonstrated a pattern of his own questionable behaviour in recording conversations without acknowledgment or consent, and resorting to threats of exposure–as if that threat is supposed to worry me because I am supposedly acting with anything less than good faith–for what he again assumes are the facts, but once again add up to nothing but his own opinions.
Given John’s accusations of dishonesty to others within AAI, which he now also unfairly accuses me of, in addition to his categorization of secret AGMs and the allegation AAI ‘illegitimately excluded at least 25’ affiliates without evidence, perhaps our members will understand why I take his assertions with a measure of caution and undertake a proper investigation of the records. I will report my findings directly to Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland as part of our reconciliation process.
The original post incorrectly stated the 2016 AGM had only two affiliates attend, which John correctly pointed out had nine. The AAI vice-president points out the error was that the AGM with two affiliates in attendance was the 2015 one.
A further correction was added to clarify that the financial situation had deteriorated in the ensuing months after John’s resignation. However, the membership numbers had already dropped from their peak in 2013-14, the period which did overlap with his tenure and for which he was aware of the 2016 problems with the Salsa membership system and late invoicing which contributed to frustration with the membership, the declining numbers, and the ensuing financial situation of the 2018 reorganization.
Regarding his accusation of money being ‘misspent this has been updated to reflect his quotes ‘illegally appropriated’ and a ‘cabal deliberately removed transparency measures.’
The reference to bylaw #14 was added in relation to the matter of invoiced affiliates.