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Six charged in ‘coffee fund’ probe back at work

DeKALB – Six of the eight employees charged with felonies in connection with Northern Illinois University’s “coffee fund” investigation have returned to work, an NIU spokesman said Tuesday.

NIU’s general counsel is still reviewing materials related to Lawrence Murray, 52, of Rochelle, and Kenneth Pugh, 57, of Sycamore, to determine what, if any, disciplinary action should be taken against them, spokesman Paul Palian said. Their cases required more study because they are supervisors, Palian said.

“Obviously, if something comes out in the criminal court cases, we reserve the right to have disciplinary action,” Palian said of the six employees who had returned to work by Monday. “The reason they were placed on administrative leave was to maintain the status quo [for the investigation.]”

Keeping the six workers on paid leave was costing the university about $1,300 a day in salary, and two of those on leave had not worked in four months.

Eight NIU employees and one former employee were charged with crimes after an investigation into an off-the-books repository for proceeds from the sale of NIU-owned scrap metal and other materials. Called the coffee fund, the money was used for office retirement parties and similar expenses, NIU officials have said.

Records from local scrap metal company DeKalb Iron and Metal Co. show the fund received more than $13,000 since 2005, although it apparently had existed long before that. The coffee fund held $2,187 when the account at a local bank was closed in August, NIU officials have said.

When asked Tuesday if there were any related developments in the criminal cases, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack declined to comment on the pending cases.

“The university has their processes; the court system has ours,” Schmack said. “The two are not necessarily dependent on each other.”

NIU’s Office of the General Counsel has been reviewing records, university policies and reports surrounding the coffee fund investigation.

“Based on this review, the General Counsel’s office has advised and recommended that six return to work immediately and resume their duties on behalf of the university,” NIU officials said in a written statement.

Two employees, Keenon Darlinger, the storekeeper for materials management, and Susan Zahm, inventory specialist for property control, had been on leave since Aug. 29. Darlinger earns $37,030 a year; Zahm, $35,120, records show.

Four others had been on paid leave since Oct. 18. They are: Joseph Alberti, an account technician for materials management with an annual salary of $46,839; Mark Beaird, an inventory specialist for materials management, at $27,593; Michael Hall, the traffic manager in the materials management department, at $62,010; and Keith Jackson, the university’s controller, at $150,677.

Charges in the case were announced in October; all nine people charged in connection with the investigation were indicted last month. The ninth person charged, Robert Albanese, resigned his position as associate vice president of the Division of Finance and Facilities last summer amid allegations of misconduct.

Jackson is charged with official misconduct, violation of the State Property Control Act and obstructing justice. According to court documents, he altered evidence of the coffee fund account by taking money from it and putting it into another account he controlled.

Beaird, Darlinger, Hall, and Zahm are charged with theft, official misconduct and violating the State Property Control Act.

Alberti is charged with theft of a Hewlett-Packard computer monitor.

No disciplinary action was taken against the six who returned to work, Palian said.

They were paid for the time they were on leave and are returning to the same jobs they had when they were placed on leave. Those employees will receive any training they may have missed while away, Palian said.

“Some of the policies and procedures had been updated since some of them had left, dealing with the handling of surplus materials,” Palian said. “That will be ongoing.”

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