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Our View: Actions say more than words at NIU

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The administrators at Northern Illinois University have said they take seriously the charges pending against university employees in the “coffee fund” investigation.

Their actions tell a different story.

Last week, university officials decided to reinstate six employees facing felony charges in relation to their work duties at NIU.

The charges against the employees include theft, a crime of which all but one is accused. Most of the others also face charges including official misconduct and violation of the State Property Control Act.

The charges stem from an NIU police investigation into the “coffee fund,” an off-the-books account where proceeds from recycling university property were deposited and used for their own purposes. Records show $13,000 was deposited into the fund over a seven-year period; there was a little more than $2,000 in the account when the university closed it last year.

The employees had been suspended with pay, some for as long as four months. That ended when the university’s Office of the General Counsel decided that there hadn’t been enough evidence presented against them to keep them from returning to work.

Apparently, criminal charges aren’t enough of a red flag. So the six are back on the job. Two supervisors have yet to be reinstated, but following the logic employed at NIU, it’s probably only a matter of time before they’re welcomed back as well.

There will be training for the employees who have been out, so they can get caught up on what they missed during their paid vacations. What’s needed is to invest more resources in them, apparently.

NIU officials said in making the announcement that they would have no further comment on the decision, probably because they know the mental gymnastics they would have to perform to answer simple questions, such as:

• How does it make sense to allow employees charged with stealing from the university to return to work before their case is decided? What kind of message does that send to the public and other employees?

• Won’t it look bad if these employees are convicted and then you have to decide whether to keep them on or not? How will you justify having reinstated them?

• Are you concerned about liability issues if there is another incident involving one of these employees?

• Does reinstating the employees mean that the university has no faith in the NIU police, who spent a month on this investigation?

• Do you understand that evidence is presented at a trial, and there hasn’t been a trial for anyone charged yet?

We can not think of another employer that would reinstate employees charged with stealing from the organization, or otherwise in dereliction of their official duties, unless and until they were acquitted in court.

It is understandable to want to protect the rights of workers, but NIU is a public institution and these workers are charged with violating the public trust.

The decision to reinstate them without a resolution on the matter is irresponsible, and if NIU administrators really do take these charges seriously, they will reconsider it.

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