DeKALB – Top Northern Illinois University administrator Eddie Williams was placed on a paid leave of absence Friday in light of a federal investigation that is probing both the school and the low-income housing development Eden’s Garden that Williams owns.
NIU President John Peters said in a statement Friday that Williams, chief of operations and executive vice president of finance and facilities, had agreed to step aside until there is a resolution to the investigation, which started Wednesday morning when FBI, state police and officials from two other federal agencies collected years’ worth of materials from the NIU Police Department.
“Dr. Williams has been integral to our success, and we have the highest regard for his 42-year commitment to Northern Illinois University,” Peters said in a statement. “He will take this step until resolution of the investigation to avoid any appearance of conflict or any question concerning the university’s response to this matter.”
Williams will continue to be paid his $303,684 annual salary while on leave.
Although most of the language in the federal search warrant for the NIU Police Department was very general, it specifically requested all police records relating to the Eden’s Garden housing development, including “all communications between Donald P. Grady and Eddie R. Williams relating to Eden’s Gardens, including correspondence, memoranda, notes, and audio recordings of meetings and telephone calls.”
Grady was police chief at NIU until he was fired from his $200,000-a-year job Feb. 19. Williams oversaw operation of the police department until Nov. 9, when Bill Nicklas was appointed acting director of public safety.
William Sullivan, Williams’ attorney, said in a statement he has no idea why Williams’ involvement with the housing development was the subject of a federal investigation. He said the legally required background checks for tenants in the subdivision receiving federal housing assistance have been conducted for more than five years by Screening Reports Inc., a national provider of background screening service to the multifamily housing industry.
Sullivan said that Eden’s Gardens, which is located on Twombly Road west of Annie Glidden Road, is completely separate from NIU.
“Its sole purpose is to meet the housing needs of those in the community with limited financial resources,” Sullivan said of the development. “Dr. Williams is cooperating fully with the authorities and Eden’s Gardens has provided all materials requested.”
Michael Fox, Grady’s attorney, was also confused as to why his client was targeted in the search warrant, saying there was zero connection with Eden’s Gardens. The only connection, Fox said, was Grady reported to Williams as a subordinate.
“The chief has had nothing to do with Eden’s Gardens whatsoever,” Fox said. “Where this comes from I have no idea.”
Eden’s Gardens was developed in the mid-1990s in two phases. It received financial support from the Illinois Housing Development Authority. DeKalb City Manager Mark Biernacki said Williams was one of the principals of the project, and was the lead applicant in getting the area zoned by the DeKalb City Council.
Biernacki said Williams’ involvement in the project was as a private citizen, not an NIU official. The subdivision is a mixture of town homes and single-family homes. It is not a Section 8 housing complex, but some tenants can receive Section 8 vouchers.
Stepping in for Williams will be Steve Cunningham, vice president of administration and human resource services. Since August, Cunningham has overseen the office of the controller, the accounting office and operation of the Holmes Student Center. He has been with NIU since 1993.
Peters addressed the FBI’s search earlier Friday in an email to the NIU campus community. The FBI was joined by officials from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General. The inspectors general typically investigate fraud or waste of agency funds or in agency programs.
“That these issues are causing the campus community distress is understandable,” Peters wrote. “However, NIU must always be able to sustain external and independent review and investigation of any aspect of our operation.”
The searches follow several controversies to hit campus over the past year, some of which have involved the police department.
University police led the investigation into the “coffee fund,” an off-the-books repository for proceeds from the sale of NIU-owned scrap metal – some of it from building projects – and other materials that NIU officials have said was used for retirement parties and other office expenses. Eight current NIU employees were indicted in connection with that investigation in December; six have returned to work and two remain on paid leave.
In February, Grady was fired for the department’s mishandling of a rape case against one of its own officers. A local judge ruled that officers purposefully withheld information that would have contradicted the accuser.
Grady has requested FBI assistance in investigating financial aspects of the coffee fund, and Peters has asked state police to review NIU police procedures and investigations after a local judge ruled that the department purposefully withheld evidence in the rape investigation.
Peters said in a statement it is still impossible to determine what is the investigation’s focus.
“It is troubling to be on the receiving end of a search warrant and investigation by any law enforcement agency, as it is impossible at this early stage to determine what specific actions may have occurred that necessitate such a response,” he said.