Baker’s legal fees total out to $337K


Baker’s legal fees total out to $337K

By Ian Tancun

DeKALB | While NIU struggled to regain financial stability, officials hired law firm Franczek Radelet in 2016 to investigate complaints made against departing President Doug Baker and his administration, making it the second law firm to add thousands to the legal bills incurred by NIU as a result of investigations into Baker’s administration.

In 2014, a complaint was filed with the Office of the Executive Inspector General, a state watchdog agency, alleging Baker and his administration improperly handled the hiring of affiliate employees and improperly reimbursed them for travel expenses, according to an OEIG report released May 31. The report found the allegations to be true.

NIU officials hired Chicago-based law firm Franczek Radelet to advise the Board of Trustees regarding the OEIG investigation, Spokesperson Lisa Miner said during an April 28 phone call with the Northern Star.

The law firm has billed NIU $148,638.06 for its work related to the “Board investigation,” according to a Jan. 24 invoice obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to NIU by the Northern Star.

Their investigative work on behalf of the Board began on Sept. 1, 2016, and concluded on Dec. 28, 2016, according to Franczek Radelet invoices obtained through the FOIA request.

On top of the expenses incurred by the hiring of Franczek Radelet, NIU also paid $189,145.46 to a law firm — Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo — hired by Baker to represent him in the OEIG investigation, according to Mintz Levin invoices received through a FOIA request submitted to NIU by the Northern Star.

Franczek Radelet charged NIU $275 per hour, whereas Mintz Levin — the law firm hired at the request of Baker — charged NIU $685 per hour, according to invoices from both law firms.

In total, between Franczek Radelet and Mintz Levin, NIU has incurred expenses in the amount of $337,783.52 as a result of investigations involving Baker.

While Baker and Miner previously told the Northern Star there was only one OEIG investigation into Baker’s administration, Mintz Levin was working on two investigations: one into the hiring of temporary employees and another related to internal controls, according to minutes from a Nov. 6, 2016, Board of Trustees meeting.

It is unclear whether the internal controls investigation is related to a second OEIG investigation, as NIU officials did not respond to the Northern Star’s request for clarification before publication.

Legal fees tap into scarce finances

NIU has faced economic hardships since 2015 because of the ongoing Illinois budget crisis which has resulted in NIU receiving less than the recommended amount of appropriated state funds. The reduction in state funds has led NIU to make budget cuts across departments, including asking Department of Communication faculty members to give up their office phones and printers in cost-cutting efforts, according to an April 6 Open Letter published in the Northern Star.

Baker previously said NIU was facing “extraordinary financial circumstances” that put “extreme pressure on our financial sustainability and has already resulted in significant reductions in operating budgets,” according to a May 9 Baker Report. He went on to say NIU was eliminating more than 150 staff positions — including 30 current employees — as a result.

Legal fees, including those incurred by Mintz Levin and Franczek Radelet, are funded by tuition payments made by students and the appropriated state funds that are at the center of NIU’s uncertain financial future.

Baker said the legal fees NIU was incurring on his behalf were part of operating costs at NIU, according to a May 1 Northern Star article. Yet, some faculty members have expressed concerns about the amount of money NIU is paying in legal fees associated with the investigations.

“Given the dire financial situation that NIU and all state universities are in right now, it seems problematic,” said Kate Cady, associate professor of communication. “It’s not a good use of student’s money … a lot of the editorials talk about the misuse of ‘taxpayer money,’ but frankly, especially right now, for the last two years … the bulk of the money at NIU is money students pay in tuition and fees. So, it’s not taxpayer money; it’s student’s money that’s being misused.”

Faculty member responds to OEIG report

The OEIG found Baker “mismanaged NIU by allowing the improper hiring of individuals into the affiliate position,” according to the report. Faculty Senate President Greg Long took exception to some of the wording used in the OEIG’s report.

“I thought some of the language in the report was likely harsher than it should have been, from my perspective,” Long said. “From my understanding of the situation — and knowing what President Baker walked into — while mistakes were made, I think the mistakes were made in good faith, and once identified, there’s been a significant amount of corrective action that has taken place.”

During a June 15 Board of Trustees meeting, Baker resigned as NIU president citing the “distraction” the OEIG report was creating for the university and his administration. Prior to Baker’s resignation, Long reaffirmed he still had confidence in Baker continuing on as president despite the report.

“He has acknowledged there were mistakes made,” Long said. “He has dealt with the Faculty Senate, as well as the rest of the university, I think very transparently on the vast majority of everything that he could talk about.”

Long cites the fact that corrective actions have been taken, resulting in improved policies and practices now in place — including the affiliate employee category no longer being available for use — as the reason for his continued support of Baker. And while Long supports Baker, he is dismayed by the amount of money paid to the five employees listed in the OEIG report.

“The amount of money that was paid out breaks my heart; I will be honest with you,” Long said. “It’s hard for me to understand how individuals command that kind of salary. The other thing I would say, however, is that those hires and the payment for those people weren’t done without the knowledge of the Board of Trustees, so it doesn’t entirely fall to President Baker on that as far as how that was organized and managed.”