NIU “Coffee Fund” Updates

NIU Today: NIU confirms the existence of a “private, non-university bank account named ‘coffee fund.’” In the article, NIU says, “Any determination of criminal charges will be made by the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s office after reviewing the evidence collected during the criminal investigation.”

Northern Star: State police are now involved as far as advising “how to proceed.”

In “NIU hired outside firm to investigate employees” we learn that NIU paid about $25,000 for investigations into what have previously been described as serious allegations of misconduct.

A contract between the university and Sycamore law firm Foster & Buick Law Group shows that attorney John Countryman was hired June 4 to investigate “named individuals within the organization.” The contract was obtained by the Daily Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request.

NIU hired Countryman at an hourly rate of $300. Palian said he didn’t know the exact amount NIU paid for the full investigation, but said it cost about $25,000.

University officials refused to provide findings and reports compiled by Countryman because they said they are exempt from disclosure.

The Daily Chronicle obtained the employee agreements through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request, and I hope the paper also requests a review by the attorney general’s office of NIU’s above-claimed exemption.

Meanwhile, between the costs of the “investigation” and the severance for the employees in question, we’re up to $106,000 paid out by a public university that, in effect, keeps the facts from being known.

This is unacceptable, NIU.

In reading “NIU: ‘We Welcome’ State’s Attorney Involvement” we get this:

“The integrity of this great university is not at issue,” the statement continued.

When your PR people claim that the resignations of two of your top employees at the same time were for personal reasons and a coincidence, but later it’s found they actually resigned in the midst of investigations into “serious and substantial allegations of misconduct,” I’d say integrity is exactly the issue.

Good day.

I really hate to pick on Marc Strauss, the only Northern Illinois University trustee who will talk to the press right now, but this doesn’t wash:

“We acted swiftly upon learning of the possibility of impropriety, and I instructed the NIU Police to launch a thorough investigation,” [Eddie] Williams [who is executive vice president of the Division of Finance and Facilities] was quoted as saying. “We are waiting for the police to conclude their investigation. We look forward to receiving the findings in the very near future.”

The NIU Police Department also falls under the Division of Finance and Facilities, and Strauss said he could see why people might be concerned about a conflict of interest.

“It would be different if the allegations were against the police,” he said. “But the allegations aren’t against the police[.]”

Really? Anybody can see that as the investigation travels up the food chain, NIU Police will come face to face with its own boss. Why would you put your police department in that kind of position?

And any attempt whatsoever to justify even the appearance of a conflict of interest is a really bad move — especially if it turns out, as suggested by the resignation/nondisclosure agreements, that a cover-up of misconduct may be involved.

Try again, NIU trustees! An investigation from outside is the only correct answer.

Thank you, Daily Chronicle, for revealing that there indeed is more to the Northern Illinois University Finance & Facilities/Convo shakeup than just a couple of dudes simultaneously deciding they were ready to move on.

DeKALB – Separation agreements for two former Northern Illinois University administrators show they were paid tens of thousands of dollars and were under investigation for misconduct when they quit.

Robert Albanese, former associate vice president of the Division of Finance, Facilities and Operations, and John Gordon, former director of the Convocation Center, submitted signed letters of resignation July 19 and July 20, respectively. The two were on paid leave status from the time they submitted the letters until July 31.

In the agreements, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the university agrees to stop the administrative process of “prospective dismissal from service for cause” against both men “for reasons directly associated with serious and substantial allegations of misconduct.”

As usual the news raises more questions than it answers, such as why NIU would finalize separation/nondisclosure agreements before determining the validity of the allegations of misconduct — you know, to prevent inadvertent rewarding of bad behavior — and whether NIU spokespersons (who initially claimed that the two resignations were personal and unrelated) should feel ill-used if nobody ever believes another word they say.

Then there’s this:

In response to a FOIA request, university officials said they had no documents from the NIU Department of Police and Public Safety that showed Gordon or Albanese were involved in any reports in 2012.

Does this mean for sure that the “coffee fund,” which according to the Chronicle IS being investigated, is a separate matter from the allegations against Albanese and Gordon? And is anybody investigating the possible “serious and substantial” misconduct or not?

More “Coffee Fund” Stuff

AP has picked up the “NIU Coffee Fund” story from the Daily Chronicle, so it’s all over the state now. Choose your favorite search engine to see for yourself.

Glad as I am to see something hit daylight, though, there’s the feeling we’re being thrown a bone. I’ve pointed out previously that chasing it has taken attention off the NIU Finance-Convo shakeup. Also, who says DIMCO is the only scrap metal recycler and “coffee” the only fund? Here’s the comment I left at the Chronicle website yesterday:

Maybe Crundwell and her brazenness with the passing of time is sticking in my mind, but the “scrap” operation strikes me as somewhat small-time for the number of years involved — not to mention all the construction that has been going on at NIU. And all that iron and steel brought in but not an ounce
of copper?! I hope the DC is on the lookout for more “coffee” accounts and is checking with all recyclers within, say, a 50-mile radius of DeKalb.

Makes sense, doesn’t it, to widen the investigation — and maybe to have somebody besides NIU investigating NIU.

Congratulations to the Daily Chronicle for digging up this story.

Bill Kunkel, head of transportation for DeKalb Iron and Metal Company in DeKalb, said that for years he’s been writing checks to what’s called the “coffee fund,” an account NIU spokesman Paul Palian said university officials weren’t aware existed.

Kunkel said several employees, mainly from NIU’s Physical Plant, have sold scrap metal from the university to DIMCO on and off for at least the past 25 years. The company’s electronic records date back to February 2005, and checks from DIMCO since that time have totaled more than $13,000.

These aren’t proceeds from aluminum cans we’re talking about, but from scrap iron and steel — and they evidently are not going back to NIU as they should.

The DC reports that NIU officials became aware of the “coffee fund” only Friday, so even as potentially explosive as this discovery is on its own, it doesn’t explain last week’s big shake-up at Finance & Facilities and the Convocation Center.

Still, it’s a rare feat to find people willing to go on the record when what they know has the flavor of whistle-blowing. Way to go, DC!

Reaction to the New Planters

[Update 6/21: Here's another reaction to the new planters.

toppled planter

The person who took this photo says at least four of the planters had been toppled as of Wednesday.]

There’s already been a lot of discussion about the new City of DeKalb/NIU ashtrays urinals planters at the City Barbs Facebook Page. I don’t want to duplicate those comments, but I do want to respond to the Chronicle’s take, which is as follows:

Thumbs up: To more collaboration between the city of DeKalb and Northern Illinois University. Forty planters were placed throughout DeKalb and campus Tuesday morning as part of an initiative spearheaded by the Citizens’ Community Enhancement Commission to beautify the area. The planters feature a shrub surrounded by colorful flowers. Logos from NIU, the city and Proven Winners, which provided the plants and soil, are displayed on each container. While they may seem small, they brighten up our area.

Instead of the ugliness or the possible blocked wheelchair access or anything else that has been covered elsewhere, let’s go in a completely different direction, and by that I mean amateur psychology. Putting one’s new baby logos on 40 planters is an act that exemplifies perfectly the type of desperate insecurity that prevails in the running of this town. It’s a form of “shopping therapy” for massaging fragile egos, which is not only the worst possible motivation for public spending but almost guarantees the result will be objectionable, if not downright grotesque.

It’s not just the planters, either. The Art Deco stuff on the east side, the purple banners, and the new street signs all inhabit this category. The “planners” keep throwing up kitsch with no guiding sense of design. The Plan itself has lost whatever coherence it might have had.

OK, yeah, I’m a little extra cranky because I’ve been looking at the city’s budgeted vs. actual revenues and the latest projections again, and they don’t look so hot. I hope to have updated year-over-year charts for you soon in an effort to show DeKalb’s expenditures should stick strictly to the things we need.

Meantime, let’s think about how many square feet of concrete sidewalks could have been replaced in one of our neglected neighborhoods for the cost of the planter “collaboration.”

Post-Meeting Open Thread

So, what did we learn from the latest Council meeting? We learned that, even though Fairview Drive residents have spoken at three meetings, made phone calls and sent letters and e-mail to them, one or more Council members perceived little opposition to forced annexation because the residents failed to arrive as an angry mob last night.

After talking with a few — they are my neighbors and some of them are my friends — my take is that they know a done deal when they see one. This was confirmed in fact by their new alderman, who remarked that the annexation’s been in the works for six months.