State watchdog agency releases report about two-year Baker investigation

By Lindsey Salvatelli

DeKALB | The Executive Ethics Commission released the Office of Executive Inspector General, a state agency that investigates allegations of misconduct, final report regarding a two-year investigation into NIU’s procurement and hiring practices that concluded August 2016.

The investigation found President Doug Baker, along with other NIU employees, had “misclassified high-level, highly paid consultants” between 2014 and 2015 which resulted in more than $1 million in unnecessary spending of public funds, according to the report.

The expenses included the cost of hiring five individuals who the report identified as consultants and whose pay exceeds the amount required by Illinois procurement rules. Two of the individuals identified in the report — Ron Walters, former strategic initiatives adviser, and Nancy Suttenfield, former interim chief financial officer — were among the highest paid individuals at NIU, according to the report.

Illinois Procurement Code requires services being provided by an individual outside of the university at a cost of $20,000 or more must go through a competitive bidding process to ensure that the entity or individual being hired is the most cost effective and has most appropriate skillset, according to the report. This was a process not used for the hiring of these five individuals.

Additional cost included reimbursement for lodging and travel expenses for Walters, Suttenfield, and former consultants Ken Wilson, Magaly Rodriquez and William Pfeiffer, which they were not entitled to because they were “employees ostensibly headquartered in DeKalb,” according to the report.

Efforts were made to recoup some of the costs by seeking exceptions to the travel regulations and treating lodging expenses as fringe benefits.

Baker said he does not know why investigators decided to go public with the report now, but he’s glad he’s finally able to talk about the investigation.

Baker submitted a formal response to the Executive Ethics Commission May 1, which stated he respects the work of the OEIG but disagreed with the finding that he “instructed or implicitly gave general direction to University staff for the effect of disregarding legal requirements…” in regard to hiring practices.

Baker said many of the employment conflicts investigators focused on came during a time when the university was facing uncertainty and needed strong leadership because of investigations being conducted by the FBI, the Department of Education and others.

Baker said Suttenfield was hired in 2013 and was contracted to remain in the position until Sept. 30, 2014, but her contract was extended so officials could complete their search to find a permanent replacement.

“The intent of me and senior staff was to follow our own internal policies, and that’s what we’re talking about here— not ethics laws or state laws; our own internal policies,” Baker said.

Affiliate employees, which was the title NIU officials gave to the five individuals whose employment investigators found to be in violation of the employment classification, are “professional positions of a short duration (usually less than 3 months) [hired] to conduct a non-credit seminar, teach an extension class or otherwise fulfill some short-term professional responsibility,” according to the report.

Baker said Steve Cunningham, former vice president for Administration and director of Human Resources, felt the hiring of the individuals listed in the investigation met the affiliate employment category.

“I’m disappointed that [the investigators] interpreted that as intending to circumvent the hiring policies and regulations of the university,” Baker said. “I think those folks were giving their best advice and trying to follow the rules.”

Baker said the first complaint regarding an affiliate employee came about in summer of 2014, and his administration moved toward eliminating it in the following spring to rectify any future problems.

In a Dec. 22 Baker Report, Baker referenced the missteps taken with employment and the changes made by officials to avoid such conflict in the future, though he could not disclose the fact that there was an OEIG investigation into the incidents. The email sparked concern within the Faculty Senate, which tabled a vote of confidence on Baker during a March 29 meeting.

Many of the investigation’s recommendations had already been implemented before its conclusion, and the use of affiliate employment has been dissolved since Jan. 5, 2015.

“We’ve addressed these issues, and I’ve communicated about the issues in the last three years, but I couldn’t say this was part of the investigation of the OEIG because that was confidential information,” Baker said. “So I’m glad that it’s out on the table and I’m glad we addressed most of these issues a few years ago.”

Lindsey Salvatelli is a staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected].