DeKALB – Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker has been under investigation by a state watchdog agency for months, and records show the university has paid tens of thousands of dollars to a Boston-based law firm to represent him.
According to documents obtained by the Daily Chronicle, law firm Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo PC billed the university for 142.4 hours of work and expenses totaling more than $85,000 from March through September as they have worked on a defense.
The amount includes a $3,500 retainer fee for Raymond Cotton, a Harvard-educated member of the firm who is based out of Washington, D.C., and specializes in representing higher education executives, according to his online biography.
The investigation was initiated by the state Office of Executive Inspector General Maggie Hickey.
“Yes, there is an investigation,” Baker said, adding that he could make no further comment on the matter.
Members of the NIU Board of Trustees have said the university has an obligation to defend Baker, although some have voiced concerns about the mounting legal bills. Meanwhile, the state agency conducting the probe of Baker is saying nothing about what it might be looking into and wouldn’t confirm an investigation is underway.
The executive inspector general’s office fields and, at its discretion, investigates complaints against employees of, and those doing business with, agencies under the governor’s purview, including state universities. Anyone can send a complaint to the office, but officials do not confirm or deny receipt of complaints or whether they lead to an investigation, a spokesman said.
Hickey’s office has investigated matters from prohibited political activity and using state records for personal gain by state employees, to ghost-payrolling and other types of fraud. In some cases, it can take years before findings of investigations are made public.
Investigators determine whether complaints are founded or unfounded and can make recommendations on discipline – including firing – or if a former employee should be eligible for rehire. The office can also refer the results of its investigations to state or federal authorities for prosecution.
Records show that NIU officials including Trustee John Butler viewed the state inquiry as cause for concern in February, when Baker moved to retain Cotton.
“The board believes that professional and practical reasons exist for you to retain counsel,” Butler, then the chairman of the board, wrote in a Feb. 27 memo to Baker. “We want to be clear that we are approving financial support for representation only for the ongoing OEIG investigation.”
In March, the Auditor General’s office found that the university improperly reimbursed consultant Ron Walters for $31,945 for travel from his home in Washington to NIU’s DeKalb campus.
Legal expenses mount
From the outset, NIU trustees expressed concern over the cost for Mintz Levin. Although the fee Baker and the law firm agreed to was redacted from documents, dividing the amount billed by the number of hours listed on the September invoice shows that lead attorney Cotton’s fee is likely $685 an hour.
Other members of the firm are working on the case, invoices show, with varying hourly fees.
Butler noted in his Feb. 27 memo that the university typically pays around $363 an hour to outside legal firms, “considerably less” than Mintz Levin’s fee.
“The board does not wish to deny you the ability to work with the attorney of your choice, however, we also believe it is prudent and responsible to limit the scope of representation,” Butler wrote.
Butler went on to set a $50,000 limit on the fees the board would be willing to pay. He added then that expenses over $19,999 would have to go out to bid.
At a May 28 Executive Committee meeting, trustees first approved paying up to $50,000 for Baker’s legal defense in what is believed to be the executive inspector general investigation. The authorized amount has continued to grow, and a purchase order dated Sept. 29 now authorizes spending up to $225,000.
The lawyers apparently have generated a mountain of paperwork – they have billed for almost $7,000 in copying fees, including a July invoice that charged $1,220 for color copying and an August bill that included $5,500 to print “OEIG documents from disk.”
Butler said Dec. 10 that NIU has a duty to pay to defend its leader.
“The university is obligated to indemnify its employees,” Butler said, “particularly its senior officers, when they believe that the representation is warranted, based on the services that they provided the university.”
By September, some financial documents authorizing payments to Mintz Levin included a disclaimer that the payment requests were exempt from some state procurement rules because they had to do with “contracts necessary to prepare for anticipated litigation, enforcement actions or investigations.”
NIU may not be paying the attorney’s bills lately because of the state budget impasse. While the law firm’s contract indicated that it would penalize for nonpayment, NIU financial documents indicate that a state law allows payments to stop without penalty if the General Assembly fails to appropriate “sufficient funds.”
Employee’s wife complained
The scrutiny could be the result of a series of complaints filed by the wife of a high-ranking employee currently on leave.
Sharon May, an NIU alumna and wife of Keith Jackson, a university controller on paid administrative leave, said she has sent over a dozen complaints to the OEIG in an effort to blow the whistle on some practices.
“First off, I didn’t like the way they brought in [NIU President Doug] Baker. And soon as he started walking all over everybody, I didn’t like that,” May said. “I have filed numerous complaints. I don’t know what the OEIG is actually investigating.”
May’s husband, Jackson, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against NIU, which claims he fell out of favor with Baker when he refused to sign off on the way the university wanted to set up the hiring contract for former CFO Nancy Suttenfield. He is seeking his job back along with damages.
Jackson has been paid his $150,677 annual salary and benefits despite not having worked at NIU since May 2014. He will continue to be paid until February, officials have said.
Among other complaints May said she submitted was one about a forensic accounting company that NIU hired during the time her husband served as chief financial officer.
It may never be revealed what the OEIG is looking into, but trustees and others in the public are mindful of the expense NIU is incurring as a result of the inquiry.
“I share, with Trustee [Cherilyn] Murer, a sensitivity to the cost,” Butler said at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting. “We are asking that the president use his judgment to determine what is necessary in exercising his legal rights in this matter.”