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'Coffee fund' deal likely no trend setter

Albanese accepts plea deal in 'coffee fund' case

Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 10:25 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 10:13 p.m. CDT

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SYCAMORE – The eight remaining Northern Illinois University employees facing criminal charges in connection with the "coffee fund" investigation might not follow their former supervisor's lead of entering a plea agreement.

Defense attorneys for two of the remaining defendants insist their clients did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, a Chicago legal expert cautioned a felony conviction would strip them of their pension and any conviction could risk their university jobs.

The coffee fund was an off-the-books repository for proceeds from the sale of NIU-owned scrap metal and other materials. The account accumulated at least $13,000 since 2005 but held $2,187 when it was closed in August. The money was used for office retirement parties and similar expenses, NIU officials have said.

Robert Albanese, former associate vice president of the Division of Finance and Facilities at NIU, pleaded guilty to violating the State Property Control Act, a Class B misdemeanor, and prosecutors dropped felony charges of theft and official misconduct.

Albanese was sentenced to 18 months of court supervision and fined $825.

Richard Larson, who represents NIU employee Kenneth Pugh, said although his client faces the same charges, there would be no plea agreement. Larson said Albanese's guilty plea shows where responsibility lied.

"Our investigation has indicated there would be no basis for a guilty plea on his part," Larson said. Ron Dolak represents Keenon Darlinger, who also reported to Albanese. Dolak said there would be either a dismissal or a trial in his client's case. He believed a dismissal of the charges was a strong possibility.

"I don't think there is going to be a plea agreement in my case," Dolak said. "My client didn't do anything wrong."

Joseph Alberti, Mark Beaird, Michael Hall, Keith Jackson, Lawrence Murray and Susan Zahm also were charged in connection with the coffee fund investigation.

NIU officials placed the eight defendants on paid leave last year and have allowed all but two to return to their positions without penalty. Pugh and Murray remain on paid administrative leave as the university continues its own investigation; their reviews are more complicated because they held supervisory roles, university officials have said.

Before he was criminally charged in October, Albanese had left the university July 31 after signing a separation agreement that said he faced "serious and substantial allegations of misconduct." He was paid $45,000 at the time of his resignation, which was based on his annual salary of $198,553.

For those who still face charges, weighing the risks and rewards of a plea agreement will be important, said Leonard Cavise, director for the Center for Public Interest Law at DePaul University.

Cavise said pleading guilty to a misdemeanor would give the employees an opportunity for expungement and to protect their pensions, which could be jeopardized if they were convicted of a felony. However, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor could give the university grounds to fire the employee, even if the charge eventually is expunged.

"They would want to avoid any guilty verdict because the university could always use that as grounds for dismissal," Cavise said. "Either contest it or plead to the most minor offense."

For his part, Albanese apologized outside of court Tuesday for his failure to handle state resources properly.

"I would like to apologize to the DeKalb County Court, the DeKalb County State's Attorney's Office and the NIU community," Albanese said, "for not being a better steward of state property."

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