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Our View: Silence at the top after NIU arrests unacceptable

A lot of the “little people” at Northern Illinois University had warrants issued for their arrest Tuesday, and as has been the case throughout, those at the top largely have been silent.

As scandals have unfolded in the NIU Department of Finance and Facilities, many of those in charge have been conspicuous in their silence.

Eddie Williams, executive vice president and chief of operations, has declined to comment to the Daily Chronicle when approached in person or by phone.

University President John Peters has made no statement about the case either, although we know he is aware of it because the university hired a Chicago criminal attorney to advise him and the Board of Trustees this week.

Williams is at the top of the organizational chart in the Department of Finance and Facilities and earns a salary greater than $300,000 a year. The people who were encouraged to resign while being investigated for misconduct – and now those being arrested on felony theft and other charges – are members of his team.

Since July, under Williams’ watch, two managers, Convocation Center Director John Gordon and Williams’ direct report, Associate Vice President Robert Albanese, resigned after signing separation agreements that showed they were under investigation for misconduct.

Later reports showed they had been taking university property for personal use, and an employee grievance alleged Gordon had university employees clean his home during work hours.

Then Tuesday, nine people – including Albanese and managers in departments overseen by Williams – had warrants issued for their arrests on felony charges, mostly for theft.

Most of those charged were managers, supervisors and directors, in addition to the former associate vice president.

The arrests stem from an investigation triggered when a Daily Chronicle report revealed employees in the Materials Management Department had for years been selling university-owned scrap metal and depositing the proceeds into an off-the-books bank account called the “coffee fund.”

Some people have been charged in connection with the fund; others are charged with theft of university property. One, Controller Keith Jackson, is charged with tampering with evidence for allegedly moving money from the coffee fund into a legitimate fund.

The day after police say the tampering occurred, Jackson was named to a three-member panel that is supposed to review and update procedures related to property control, cash receipts, recycling and the disposition of surplus materials.

All those arrested are innocent until proven guilty, but documents provided to the Daily Chronicle in August – including payout records and canceled checks – indicate the coffee fund was real.

Records from the metal recycling operation DeKalb Iron & Metal Co. showed the fund had collected more than $13,000 since 2005, but several
people have said this has been going on much longer.

Despite being asked for comment on the situation multiple times, Williams’ only comment was a statement delivered to the NIU public relations staff in August, in which he said he had instructed police to launch an investigation, the findings of which the university looked forward to receiving.

The results are in. Nine people have been or will be arrested by NIU police.

The university’s only statement on the situation since then has been from the vice president of
community relations, who said Tuesday that officials are “eager to get to the bottom of what happened.”

Did Williams, himself a longtime employee, know about the activities of his subordinates? Does he feel responsible for what’s gone on under his watch?

Why was a workplace culture that apparently permitted the misuse of public property allowed to proliferate? What must be done to fix the problems?

Are these charges fair?

There are no answers to those questions yet. We attempted to contact Williams after news of the arrests became public, but again we were unsuccessful.

The public expects more accountability from top leaders at one of the state’s largest public universities.

Nine arrests should be considered too big to go without comment by those in charge.

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