DeKALB – The president of Northern Illinois University admitted Thursday that state regulations governing employment and public improvements were violated early in his tenure at the school and pledged that they would not re-occur.
Douglas Baker, who took over as NIU’s president in fall 2013, said that he took responsibility for the unidentified violations, which occurred at a time of transition where a state audit found at least one consultant was improperly compensated for travel from his home in Washington state to DeKalb.
“Investigations have substantiated that in 2013 and 2014 there were weaknesses in internal controls, some limited compliance violations, and lack of clarity of policies across multiple units,” Baker said in a statement posted on the NIU Today website. “Investigation did not yield evidence of substandard work, but it did identify issues with administering certain employment, consulting, and capital works agreements.”
The university’s practices in hiring temporary employees has been the subject of a state investigation by the Office of Executive Inspector General. The university’s Executive Committee in November approved another $15,000 for legal expenses for Baker in that investigation, raising the total allowable to $165,000. Another $20,000 was approved for legal fees for Baker in an internal controls investigation.
The university also recently settled a lawsuit brought by former NIU Police Chief Donald Grady for just more than $1 million. Grady alleged that his civil rights had been violated when he was fired from his job in 2014.
Thursday was the last day of the semester at NIU, and documents showing the results of the investigations Baker referred to were not immediately available. The Daily Chronicle has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking them.
In his post, Baker referenced plans and projects undertaken in the early years of his presidency, including improvements to the Neptune Hall dormitory, renovations at Holmes Student Center and the extension of Lucinda Avenue.
The university is facing a federal lawsuit from its former controller, Keith Jackson, who claims he was mistreated and forced out of the university. Jackson said he became a target after October 2013, when he refused to sign off on the way the university wanted to set up the hiring contract for former CFO Nancy Suttenfield.
“Mr. Jackson refused to do so on the basis that the contract required the approval of the board of trustees, and because processing the payments would have violated the Illinois procurement laws that required competitive bidding,” the lawsuit states.
Jackson claims he was asked by Suttenfield to quit – at Baker’s behest – in May 2014, and was placed on leave when he refused.
Ron Walters, a consultant hired in 2014 to help on the campus initiatives, was paid more than $460,000 for about 18 months’ work. But he also was improperly reimbursed for more than $30,000 in travel expenses, for which he billed the university, the state Auditor General’s office found.
Baker said the university has revised some of its employment policies in an effort to increase public trust. Specifically, Baker said there would be changes in employee classifications, and an “upgraded” whistleblower policy to protect employees who report any suspected legal and policy violations.
“To be clear, even when there is urgent need for change,” Baker wrote, “it is critical that policies, procedures, and protocols must be observed.”
In the past month, three cabinet-level administrators have announced they plan to leave the school: Vice President and General Counsel Jerry Blakemore, Vice President for Administration and Finance Alan Phillips and Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Eric Weldy.