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Future uncertain for NIU arrestees

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 11:02 a.m. CDT

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University officials announced Wednesday a determination will be made later this week about the employment status of those charged in the “coffee fund” investigation.

Felony charges were filed and arrest warrants were issued Tuesday for nine people in connection with a police investigation into university employees who allegedly were recycling university-owned scrap metal and other materials, then depositing the proceeds into an off-the-books account known as the coffee fund.

Those charged are Robert Albanese, Joseph Alberti, Mark Beaird, Keenon Darlinger, Michael Hall, Keith Jackson, Lawrence Murray, Kenneth Pugh and Susan Zahm. Albanese, the former associate vice president of finance and facilities, resigned in July.

Some are charged directly with coffee fund activities, while others are charged with attempting to conceal evidence or theft of university property, records show. The charges are based on activities that began October 2009.

Some face theft charges that carry a penalty of up to seven years in prison, others face less severe penalties.

As of Wednesday, Albanese, Alberti, Beaird, Pugh, Murray and Zahm had turned themselves in to police and posted bail. With the exception of Beaird, all were given Oct. 26 as a court date. Beaird will appear in court Nov. 2.

Hall is the traffic manager in the materials management department. Murray is the manager of property control. Zahm is an inventory specialist for property control. Pugh is the director of materials management. Darlinger is the storekeeper for materials management. Beaird is an inventory specialist for materials management. Alberti is an account technician for materials management. Jackson is the university’s controller.

NIU spokesman Paul Palian said the employment status of those charged was under review. He said the university respected the decisions of the state’s attorney’s office but pointed out that those charged are presumed innocent.

“I think that’s where the balance is,” he said.

Jackson had been named to a three-person policy review committee formed Aug. 30 to review and update procedures related to property control, cash receipts, recycling and the disposition of surplus materials. He is charged with tampering with evidence and moving money from the coffee fund account to one that he controlled.

When reached by phone Wednesday, Jackson said he had nothing to say and hung up. Messages left with Albanese, Pugh and Beaird were not returned Wednesday; others charged could not be reached.

NIU announced Wednesday that Barbara Seldal has been named interim controller and Jackson’s duties would be transferred to her. Seldal, previously assistant to the controller, also will replace Jackson on the policy review committee.

Jackson still is employed by the university, but NIU Spokesman Paul Palian said he didn’t know if Jackson was still working because his duties have been given to Seldal.

Palian said four of the eight currently working for the university were placed on paid leave in August. He would not specify who was on leave and couldn’t comment on why four are on administrative leave. He said he couldn’t speak to what type of impact their absence has had on the departments.

Once those charged appear in court and are advised of their rights, their cases will proceed from there, said DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell.

“We really treat this just like any other case,” he said.

More details about facts the state claims support the charges could emerge as the cases make their way through the system. If the state goes forward with the case, the next step likely would be seeking an indictment from a grand jury, which is next scheduled to meet Nov. 9, Campbell said.

Additionally, Palian said attorney J. William Roberts has been hired as external counsel for NIU President John Peters and the university’s Board of Trustees because the university’s legal counsel doesn’t have expertise in criminal law.

In August, a DeKalb Iron and Metal Co. employee told the Daily Chronicle that NIU employees had been selling university-owned scrap metal to the company for the past 25 years and having the company write checks for the proceeds to the coffee fund.

The coffee fund held $2,187 when it was closed in August, NIU officials have said. Company records showed that more than $13,000 from recycled scrap passed through the fund since 2005.

NIU police began their investigation Aug. 3 and turned it over to the state’s attorney’s office Sept. 4, and the attorney general’s office Sept. 5.

Albanese, who left the university July 31 after signing a separation agreement that said he faced “serious and substantial allegations of misconduct,” is charged with two counts of theft, official misconduct and violating the State Property Control Act. Beaird, Darlinger, Hall, Murray, Pugh and Zahm face the same charges.

Court documents show Zahm and Darlinger managed the coffee fund. Zahm’s signature appeared on many of the canceled checks that DeKalb Iron and Metal provided to the Daily Chronicle.

Murray also is charged with taking other university property, including a Samsung computer monitor. Alberti is charged with theft of a Hewlett-Packard computer monitor.

Palian said the university has an annual inventory process but he couldn’t speak to the specifics of the situation involving the items allegedly taken Alberti and Murray.

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