NIU spends $189K to defend President Baker

By Ian Tancun

DeKALB — NIU has paid thousands of dollars in legal fees to outside counsel for President Doug Baker as a result of an Office of Executive Inspector General investigation.

The OEIG, a state agency that investigates allegations of misconduct, received a complaint about Baker’s administration and subsequently began an investigation. Because the agency does not generally comment on investigations, it is unclear when the complaint was made, though correspondence obtained on April 17 from NIU through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Northern Star shows that outside counsel for an OEIG investigation was retained on Feb. 20, 2015.

The nature of the investigation is unclear. There has only been one OEIG investigation that Baker is aware of, and he is not sure if it is ongoing or not. Lisa Miner, senior director of institutional communications, also confirmed that there was only one OEIG investigation into Baker and his administration.

There is also an ongoing civil lawsuit filed by former Controller Keith Jackson against NIU, the Board of Trustees, President Doug Baker and Nancy Suttenfield, former interim chief financial officer.

“Universities have lawsuits on a regular basis. Any university our size probably has a few dozen lawsuits ongoing at any time,” Baker said in response to concerns about the investigations. “I would say that we have done things above board … I feel good about the way the administration has dealt with these cases, and we look forward to its resolution.”

Baker hired the law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo PC to represent him in the OEIG investigation. NIU has paid $189,145.46 to Mintz Levin for its work in the OEIG investigation as of March 28, according to payment documents received on April 27 through a FOIA request submitted to NIU by the Northern Star.

“Whenever there is an investigation by an agency — in this case, it’s not a legal suit, but it’s an agency looking at internal policy kinds of issues — it’s common practice or best practice that outside counsel be used for [the] president,” Baker said. “I’m sorry we’re having to do it, but that’s part of the indemnification clause that a president of a university has.”

The fees associated with hiring Mintz Levin are higher than what NIU typically pays for outside counsel, according to a Feb. 27, 2015, memo sent to Baker by John Butler, Board of Trustees chairperson. Although the Board of Trustees approved hiring Mintz Levin, Butler did express concerns over the cost.

In the memo, Butler points out that Mintz Levin’s hourly rate of $685 is higher than the average $363 hourly rate NIU typically pays for outside counsel, according to the FOIA document shared with the Northern Star.

Baker said he discussed the concerns with the Board, and they concurred that it was appropriate to continue with the hiring of Mintz Levin.

“They’d been my counsel for many years, and I have a good relationship with them. I think they’re a very good firm, and the Board did approve all those — all the way through this,” Baker said. Baker said those fees are used for operating budgets for the entire university, which include legal defense fees.

“I think it’s appropriate for the president to have appropriate legal counsel and to have that counsel whether it be this or any other case. So, I think that’s an appropriate use of fees,” Baker said in response to what he would say to students with concerns about their tuition payments potentially going toward paying Mintz Levin’s fees.

A March 24 purchase order from NIU to Mintz Levin was generated in the amount of $25,000 for “legal consultation for the investigation into internal controls through the period June 30, 2017,” according to the purchase order received on April 27 through a FOIA request submitted to NIU by the Northern Star.

Another purchase order to Mintz Levin on March 13 was for “legal consultation for the investigation into hiring of temporary employees.” This second purchase order has a trail dating back to FY15 when Baker hired Mintz Levin; The March 24 purchase order dates back to Board approval on March 9.

A letter from the law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP was sent to Baker on April 15, 2015, thanking NIU for engaging their firm. An April 22, 2015, purchase order NIU generated to Drinker, Biddle & Reath in the amount of $49,999 was for “outside legal services for President Baker,” according to the FOIA document shared with the Northern Star.

Baker said Drinker, Biddle & Reath was not hired for the OEIG investigation; however, he declined to say what they were hired for. Matthew Cabrera, Assistant to the Deputy FOIA Officer, said in an April 28 email to the Northern Star that “the services in this letter were not provided in representation of President Baker. Baker was not being represented by this firm in this matter. The description on the purchase requisition stating ‘Outside legal services for President Baker’ was a clerical error.”

The Faculty Senate voted to table a vote of confidence in Baker during a meeting Wednesday. Faculty Senate Speaker Greg Long said while a few faculty members have expressed concerns over the OEIG investigation, they represent a minority of the overall faculty.

“As far as tenure, tenure-track faculty, there are well over 600 of us and so … I’ve had maybe four or five people come and directly talk to me about some real specific concerns that they had, but that’s a very small percentage out of the whole group,” Long said. “So when you say, ‘Do the faculty have concerns?,’ some faculty do, but I think there are many who this is not a big issue on their radar.”

Long also said he has no doubt the Board of Trustees and Baker are operating within the boundaries of what they are allowed to do in terms of hiring outside counsel. He also says, as it relates to the OEIG investigation, people should not jump to conclusions regarding guilt.

“I would say, quite honestly, don’t presume guilt,” Long said. “I am not in a position to make judgements one way or the other. I assume that if anything comes out, it’ll come out … I presume innocence — you’re not guilty until you’re proven that way.”