With the students away and the faculty engaged in research, or perhaps taking a breather, until the summer session starts, this would ordinarily be a quiet time, but for the Office of the Executive Inspector General (anyone who sat ethics training will have at least passing knowledge of this bureaucracy) releasing a report.
An Office of Executive Inspector General investigation into Northern Illinois University’s hiring and spending practices has found that President Doug Baker routinely circumvented state laws and regulations to reward friends and associates.Headquarters circles the wagons.
The report, commissioned after watchdog groups and whistleblowers questioned Baker’s use of the so-called “affiliate employee” classification for hires in key university positions, shows what investigators call a pattern of dodging procurement code requirements.
“As a result of (Baker’s) actions, since 2013 NIU has paid over $1 million in public funds to consultants who were not selected through a competitive procurement process,” the report released Wednesday said.
NIU, like all public institutions in the state, is required to utilize competitive bids for independent contractors receiving more than $20,000 in compensation per year. The report lays out Baker’s repeated use of the affiliate employee classification to duck such laws in hiring.
In addition, the school, facing millions of dollars in cuts due to a $35 million funding gap, has paid nearly $200,000 in legal fees to outside counsel for Baker during the course of the OEIG investigation.
The report details an interaction between Baker and then-Vice President of Administration Steven Cunningham, in which Baker attempted to hire his friend, Ron Walters, as a consultant.There's more at both links. Contemplate, as well, dear reader, that this cronyism is about marketing and packaging, rather than about, oh, properly staffing the Department of Economics. "Bold Futures." A chief inspiration officer. "Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow" becomes "Your Future, Our Focus."
Cunningham told Baker the Illinois Procurement Code limited his ability to pay Walters more than $20,000 as a consultant but was advised by Baker to "find a way" to bring him in as an employee with "maximum flexibility," according to the report.
“According to Mr. Cunningham, President Baker showed a ‘high degree’ of dissatisfaction with the procurement code and the civil service system, and said that when (Cunningham) described the requirements and limitations of each, it had a material effect on his working relationship with President Baker,” the report states.
Walters’ appointment was extended multiple times, and he and Baker worked very closely to craft a campus revisioning plan called "Bold Futures."
During his time as a consultant, Walters received more than $463,000 in compensation, plus another $35,000 in inappropriate travel and lodging benefits, the report shows. In 2014, he was the third-highest-paid employee at NIU behind football coach Rod Carey and Baker, and he stayed free in the penthouse at the Holmes Student Center.
Cunningham, however, said in a public response through his lawyers that he "vehemently" refutes and denies the report's findings. Sergio E. Acosta and Vaishali S. Rao of Hinshaw and Culbertson LLP, Cunningham released a public response stating that, while Cunningham had reservations about Walters’ and Suttenfield’s appointments, he complied with Baker’s directives in a manner consistent with the law and NIU policy.
“Far from circumventing the procurement code and NIU policies, Dr. Cunningham made the best choices possible at the direction of a president who insisted on operating in crisis mode,” the response reads. “Contrary to the report’s allegations and inferences, career NIU staff like Dr. Cunningham did put up resistance to certain of President Baker’s directives, described limitations to him, and attempted to counsel him into appropriate decisions.”
Cunningham was told in February 2014 that his employment with the university was to be terminated the following year.
For President Baker, though, blame it on the previous administration.
I have not been able to be as transparent as I would have preferred, but I am now able to directly address this issue.We'll keep that in mind when the weather office closes down later this month.
First, by way of context, I want to reflect on the state of affairs when I arrived on campus in the spring of 2013. The FBI, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education and the Illinois State Police had recently searched the NIU Police Department; seized computers and records; and were actively investigating the university.
The executive vice president and chief of operations in the former Division of Finance and Facilities had taken a leave of absence related to those investigations, and the leadership and oversight of the Department of Police and Public Safety had changed. We were also confronting significant strategic, structural and financial challenges related to student recruitment and retention, state support of public higher education and pension obligations.
Faced with those circumstances, and charged by the Board of Trustees to change the culture and direction of the university, there was a need to quickly engage outside experts skilled in culture change and financial management for an unbiased and comprehensive assessment.
As we filled those roles, I sought the expertise of senior staff, including the human resources and legal departments, to ensure we appropriately proceeded. I relied on the information I received and acted in good faith. At no time did I intend for myself, or any of my staff, to violate any polices or procedures. I sincerely believed that all decisions were in compliance with the applicable requirements.
The individuals hired made significant contributions to NIU, and helped lay a firm foundation upon which we have built these last few years.