Ex-controller files civil suit against administration


Interim CFO Nancy Suttenfield speaks about NIU’s budget proposal during a Board of Trustees Finance, Facilities and Operations Committee meeting on Sept. 1, 2014, in Altgeld Hall.

By Keith Hernandez

An NIU employee has filed a lawsuit against the university alleging top administrators placed him on involuntary administrative leave without due process, among other allegations, effectively terminating his employment.

Former NIU Controller Keith Jackson, whose involvement in the previous administration’s “coffee fund” scandal was under scrutiny until charges against him were dismissed by the DeKalb County State’s Attorney, was placed under involuntary administrative leave during a meeting with Nancy Suttenfield, former interim chief financial officer, on May 13, 2014, according to the lawsuit. In the meeting, Suttenfield told Jackson if he did not within three days sign an agreement for two weeks’ pay, no future employment and a “neutral” reference in exchange for Jackson’s resignation, then NIU would find cause to terminate Jackson’s employment, according to the lawsuit.

Suttenfield did not respond to a voicemail and email requesting comment.

Jackson, as a member of the Supportive Professional Staff, fell under a provision that would have required NIU to give 12 months’ notice of nonreappointment, except for cause. The lawsuit alleges NIU filed charges to use as cause for Jackson’s termination, effective February 2016 — charges the lawsuit says were “false or contained misrepresentations regarding supposed deficiencies in Mr. Jackson’s work.”

Those charges were not included in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit suggests Jackson’s upcoming termination is the conclusion to a series of retaliatory actions by the Baker administration, who requested Jackson sign off on a contract for Suttenfield’s interim chief financial officer position. Jackson refused to sign off on the contract, in which all payments would have been made through a third party search firm, because the contract would have allowed Suttenfield to avoid Board of Trustees approval and Illinois competitive bidding laws, according to the lawsuit.

The pattern of retaliation from top administrators may stretch beyond the incidents with Jackson, according to the lawsuit.

“President Baker and the current University administration have engaged in a pattern and practice of placing University employees on immediate involuntary administrative leave, cutting off their access to e-mail, barring them from campus, and wrongly threatening to fabricate bogus charges in order to pressure them to sign separation agreements whereby they waive their rights and ‘voluntarily’ resign, thus willfully and maliciously flouting the university’s own procedures regarding notice and other administrative requirements,” the lawsuit alleges.

NIU spokesman Brad Hoey said NIU was not aware of the lawsuit as of Tuesday morning and the university does not usually comment on ongoing litigation.

Jackson’s attorney, Alex Caffarelli, said a dollar amount in damages will not be decided for some time, but the primary goal is for Jackson to return to work as NIU’s controller.