Olson: Was Grady fired over ‘coffee fund’ case?

Published: Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 11:31 p.m.CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 4:42 p.m.CDT

Donald Grady suggests he was fired as Northern Illinois University police chief because he was too aggressive investigating the “coffee fund” scandal in 2012.

Grady doesn’t talk to the news media. He and I have never met or spoken. When he does speak publicly, it’s been in court or through his lawyer. The only direct quote we’ve printed from him during my tenure was when he was testifying in a pretrial hearing for Andrew Rifkin, the former NIU officer accused of the rape of a student.

Grady was asked if he had disciplined officers who had mishandled witness statements. Grady said no.

“I did talk to them,” Grady said. “Some people think that might be as stern as a termination.”

He was not smiling when he said that.

The Rifkin case would eventually be Grady’s undoing. One of Grady’s lieutenants took statements from a couple of students who said they thought Rifkin’s encounter with the victim was consensual and didn’t turn them over to prosecutors, a no-no.

The mishandling of the Rifkin case was the stated reason for Grady’s firing in February 2013. The witnesses spoke to Grady first, and the university reasoned that he should have known the statements were not given to prosecutors.

This week, Grady sued the university and several current and former administrators, claiming they violated his civil rights by unfairly firing him.

Grady claims his rights to due process were violated, and alleges racial discrimination, pointing out that the white university employees who were implicated in the coffee fund case were allowed to keep their jobs while Grady, a black man, lost his.

In Grady’s telling through his lawsuit, he and former Executive Vice President Eddie Williams were earnestly pursuing the coffee fund investigation after the Daily Chronicle revealed the existence of that fund in August 2012. (Williams is not being sued.)

Grady said top university officials, including then-President John Peters, were unnerved by the investigation, which resulted in felony charges against nine people, most of them in connection with the fund, eight of them current employees.

The ninth person charged was Robert Albanese, a university vice president whom the university earlier had hired a private investigator to check into for allegations of “serious and substantial misconduct.”

By the time the coffee fund story broke, Albanese and John Gordon, director of the Convocation Center, had already received severance payouts and departed, as NIU publicly said, “for personal reasons.”

Grady said others at the university tried to stand in the way of the coffee fund investigation.

When a university official decided “unilaterally” to close the coffee fund bank account, Grady responded by targeting him in the investigation –he was eventually charged with a felony.

Grady said Peters in September 2012 demanded to know all that the NIU police had gathered through their investigation. Grady said that after he refused to turn over everything, Peters was visibly angry and questioned his loyalty to the university.

Well … that’s never a good sign.

In October 2012, the dominoes began to fall, with withering criticism of NIU police.

Attorneys defending Rifkin found out about the witness statements that police had not turned over to the defense.

A disastrous court hearing followed, in which Judge Robbin Stuckert said it was clear that NIU police purposely hid the information in a flagrant violation of legal procedure.

Clay Campbell, the DeKalb County state’s attorney whose office had worked with the NIU police in the coffee fund investigation, dropped the charges against Rifkin and blamed Grady’s department. Peters requested the Illinois State Police look into all pending investigations by the NIU police.

Bill Nicklas replaced Williams as Grady’s supervisor Nov. 9, and Nicklas’ first act was to begin termination proceedings against Grady. After Grady’s removal, he claims Nicklas told the NIU police that investigations Grady was leading, including into the coffee fund, would be closed.

“We cannot under any circumstances tolerate such clear breaches of contracts, authority and responsibility,” Peters said in a news release when Grady was placed on leave. “Although it pains me greatly that the university had to take these actions today, we must always strive to do the right thing.”

Look at what else happened after Grady’s removal.

Richard Schmack, the new state’s attorney, again indicted Rifkin on rape charges, saying Campbell hadn’t talked to the victim about dropping them.

The police misconduct in the case will be told to jurors if the case should go to trial, but apparently that’s not enough to torpedo the case.

Meanwhile, Schmack dropped charges against six of the coffee fund defendants, with three of the supervisors pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges that will not remain on their record if they complete supervision. All but Albanese returned to their old jobs at NIU.

“… The materials management ‘coffee fund’ was used entirely for activities which are routinely paid for out of public funds at many other departments at NIU,” Schmack said in a news release. “This money was indeed diverted, but it was diverted from one of the state’s pockets into another of the state’s pockets, when regulations said it should have gone instead into a third state pocket.”

It seems Grady was right to investigate the coffee fund, but with both him and Campbell gone, the case was soft-pedaled away.

Is it possible that if he had taken the view shared by Schmack and others of the seriousness of people using state property for their own purposes, he’d still be police chief today?

That will be up to a jury to decide – if the case gets that far, which it probably won’t.

Selective telling: This is only Grady’s side of the story, and the lawsuit – like most lawsuits – leaves out some important details.

Consider that only weeks after Grady was fired, he and Williams both were named in a federal search warrant that resulted in FBI investigators taking seven years’ worth of records out of the police department. We’ve heard nothing more from the FBI regarding that search.

Grady also had been placed on leave in 2009 after a run-in with an editor at the Northern Star (remember that line about being talked to being as bad as being fired?).

A performance review later cleared Grady of any wrongdoing and he was reinstated.

Around that time, DeKalb’s then-Police Chief Bill Feithen said he thought Grady should be removed from his post, something you almost never hear from people on the same side of the thin blue line. Local police said Grady did not work with other law-enforcement agencies, and the NIU police were considered “an island.”

So although he had some backers, Grady was not terribly popular. Although he doesn’t seem to be the type who would be overly concerned about that, when you have to take a stand on something, it certainly helps to have people in your corner.

In the end: Grady’s lawsuit requests a written apology, along with his old job back and back pay. It’s hard to imagine a world where Grady can be chief at NIU again.

But his side of the story certainly raises some interesting questions.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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