NIU faces $1 million lawsuit

By Sabryna Cornish and Mark McGowan

NIU is being sued for $1 million by a Westchester management strategies firm that claims six members of its staff secretly negotiated with NIU and turned over its clients and concepts.

The Management Association of Illinois, an organization that presents seminars in supervisory and management training, filed suit Tuesday against NIU in Cook County Circuit Court.

“This is sheer nonsense,” said NIU President John La Tourette. The lawsuit is “basically groundless and meaningless.”

Six former MAI employees—now NIU staff at the NIU Business and Industry Services—approached the university sometime last summer while still employed at MAI. A local fund data sheet with the Center for Governmental Studies was signed Aug. 1 although the six did not resign from MAI until Aug. 19.

The six are Mary Rose Hennessy, John Conrath, Daniel Hochstetter, David Murray, Sandra Pater and Sharon Young. All work at NIU’s Business and Industry Services offices in Hinsdale.

“We had on our staff six who we considered to be loyal, bright capable people,” said MAI President Charles Blanchard, who said he assumed the employees had “total commitment. For whatever reason, they decided they no longer wanted to be here.”

Blanchard alleges his employees left for NIU with important documents and clients and made the Business and Industry Services project “identical” to MAI. However, NIU Legal Counsel George Shur said the six “categorically deny” these charges.

Shur said he thinks the litigation process about to start is a “legal and psychological game.

“A lot of this whole activity is designed to get public attention and public pressure on the university when the university’s done nothing wrong,” Shur said.

When the six approached NIU about the project, Shur said they were welcomed with open arms. “We’ve got pretty good people working for us and they (MAI) don’t have them anymore,” he said.

Shur said NIU should have no problem in court. The six had no employment agreement at MAI and the clients they brought along were not under contract to MAI, he said.

However, Blanchard thinks differently. “We wouldn’t have filed this lawsuit if we didn’t think we would win,” he said.

Blanchard said he sat at the bargaining table with NIU for months with little progress and didn’t want to see it end up in court. But “enough is enough. We’re not going to get bashed around in the business community by a large university.”

According to NIU records obtained by the Star, there was more at stake for the six than “no longer wanting to be” at MAI. NIU is paying the six a total of $365,000 a year, at least $65,000 more than they were making before. Blanchard said each made somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 a year before leaving.

The top salary earner of the six is Hennessy, who makes $76,200 a year, NIU records show. Close behind is Conrath at $70,020. Hochstetter makes $58,596, Murray is paid $40,008 and Pater and Young each receive $32,004.

But the money comes from local funds and is generated by the project, Shur said. “No general funds are being used,” he said. “The people supporting this are the people using this.”

However, NIU initially advanced the center $1,043,814 to get the project rolling, records show.

The Business and Industry Services center has given NIU an unfair edge in competition, Blanchard said. A seminar schedule completed while the six were still with MAI was released in an “identical” form for NIU shortly after the six quit, he said.

Blanchard said he thinks NIU shouldn’t be competing with actual business but training the business leaders of tomorrow.

“Ironically, state universities like NIU teach courses in business ethics and yet the leadership of that institution appears to be co-conspirators in this very unethical, very unprofessional situation,” he said.

However, La Tourette said the charges “suggest that people subject themselves to involuntary servitude” and that the company has a monopoly on business training activities.

The first court proceeding is Thursday at 10 a.m. in Chicago. Named in the lawsuit are the Board of Regents and the six employees. Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin will represent NIU.

The defendants are charged with wrongfully taking and disseminating MAI’s property and commencing activities designed to hurt MAI and benefit NIU.

Chancellor’s Assistant Cheryl Peck said she did not know about the suit until late Tuesday afternoon and would not comment on the pending case.

“It’s an unusual lawsuit and we’re certainly going to take it seriously,” Peck said. “We have no reason to believe there’s been illegal action on the part of the university or its employees.”

Young, one of the six, said Tuesday she had heard nothing and said no other staff members were in the office.