RVC leaders may be investigated

A relationship exists between RVC President Roland Chapdelaine and the RVC board of trustees that has allowed questionable ethical and perhaps illegal actions that this series will examine.

Part one of this series questions Chapdelaine’s use of taxpayer-funded checking and two credit card accounts and the college’s compliance with this paper’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The three accounts were used for items such as two known political contributions for $50 each to State Rep. Dave Winters (R-69), a country club membership and associated expenses for at least $17,000 since 1999, meals, numerous checks to non-profit and for-profit organizations, and numerous credit card charges associated with trips for which there are no known official applications for travel.

Freedom of information

On Oct. 14, 2002, The Rock River Times submitted an FOIA request that compelled RVC to release documents concerning the complete salary contract for Chapdelaine. The request asked for wages, benefits, annuities, conditions of employment and expense accounts.

At the time of publication, despite an ongoing dialogue with RVC board attorney Charles Kostantacos, the original request has yet to be completely fulfilled. Among the items known missing from the request are copies of Chapdelaine’s contract for 2002-2003 (even though the board approved its terms in June 2002), at least 42 checks from Chapdelaine’s expense account and 39 credit card statements.

The FOIA provides the college with extra time to comply. However, even with the extended time granted by the Times, the college has effectively denied the Times’ request, according to Illinois Attorney General’s FOIA Web site guide.

Kostantacos said in a November 2002 letter to the Times that Chapdelaine’s contract “is not in final written form,” but would be provided as soon as it is available. The date of this article is Jan. 22, 2003.

The letter also indicates that Chapdelaine’s “base salary for the current year is $147,900.” However, a June 18, 2002, board report puts the base salary at $149,350. Using the provided data, including fringe benefits, the Times estimates Chapdelaine’s complete salary contract was at least $187,000 per year.

Frank Phillips, professor of Sociology at Cumberland County College in Vineland, N.J. (where Chapdelaine was president from 1989 to 1997), was part of the faculty’s negotiating committee in 1991. Phillips said Chapdelaine had a “sweetheart deal” in terms of a contract at Cumberland but could not recall details.

Phillips said Chapdelaine “was not forthright with disclosing his salary and benefits” and added that when Chapdelaine left Cumberland for RVC, “We were very happy to see him go” because of Chapdelaine’s “misplaced priorities” and “false statements” that will be described in future articles. Paul Kirdonak, a professor who was on the negotiating committee with Phillips, corraborated Phillips’ statements.

On Dec. 16, this paper submitted another FOIA request that asked for information concerning college attorneys and consultants. As of publication, neither the college nor Kostantacos have supplied the requested information or offered comments explaining the delay.

After examining the documents the college has turned over, Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said, “You’ve raised interesting questions that may need to be investigated.” Other state’s attorneys in Ogle, Stephenson, DeKalb and Boone counties that are within RVC’s taxing district were not contacted for comment.

Jan. 10, Dan Anders, spokesman for former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, said any violations of laws concerning Chapdelaine and the board would have to be investigated by the state’s attorneys.

The Times reported last October that RVC has also been accused of failing to disclose personnel and mental health records and false, misleading, defamatory and slanderous statements in a $2.75 million lawsuit filed by RVC Professor Robert Branda.

Ethics and community values

Corporate ethics expert and Southern Illinois University Professor of Marketing John Fraedrich, said the guiding principle in determining whether Chapdelaine’s expenses were ethical is: “What was his intent? Was it to take a potential donator to dinner? Was it part of a fund-raising event for the school?” In other words, if the expenditures did not directly benefit the college, they were unethical.

After learning some details of Chapdelaine’s actions and the board’s approval described in this and future articles, Fraedrich said the actions were “totally unethical and possibly illegal.” At minimum, Fraedrich said, “He has a lot of explaining to do.”

For example, Chapdelaine spent at least $17,053.12 of taxpayers’ dollars for a full membership at Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Country Club from April 1999 to May 2002, even though sources have said he has never been seen golfing—only dining by himself and with his family, and hosting some college functions.

Questions remain regarding who paid the country club’s $10,000 initiation fee, why Chapdelaine didn’t get a “social membership” for five times less than the full membership and if these uses of taxpayer dollars are legal despite what Chapdelaine’s contract may indicate.

Another example is a $250 contribution to the Rockford Register Star’s Newspapers in Education program on March 16, 2002—two days before RVC faculty voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with Illinois Federation of Teachers union due to concerns such as the college’s debt, management of grievances and increases in number and turnover of administrators.

A source at the Register Star described the $250 contribution as “awesome,” enough to supply 3,330 newspapers for 133 weeks to schools. The Register Star also received at least $25,000 for advertising from RVC in 2002.

The following are some expenditures that have no known official applications for travel:

l $79.27 on Saturday Feb. 19, 2000, for lodging at the Par-A-Dice Hotel and Casino in East Peoria;

l $1,153.54 for lodging in New Orleans on March 28 and 31, 1999;

l $1,854.02 for food, beverage, lodging, car rental and airline tickets associated with a Florida trip in late January and early February 2001;

l $351.95 for charges in New Jersey (where Chapdelaine was the president of Cumberland County College), Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana between July 1, 1998, and July 2, 1998;

l $3,582.11 for costs associated with a trip to Brussels, Belgium between July 11, 1999, and July 18, 1999;

l $1,080.59 for Chapdelaine and his wife for costs associated with a trip to Los Angeles on July 6, 2001;

l $1,041 for Chapdelaine and his wife’s airline tickets to Spokane, Wash. July 10, 2002.

Sources believe the July and February trips were actually vacations and not college-related. In addition, Chapdelaine used the college’s credit card for numerous meals that do not appear to be associated with college activities. Chapdelaine also used taxpayer money for numerous retirement parties—some of which he is known to have not attended.

The Times tried to contact Chapdelaine directly but was referred to Public Relations Director Liz Stirling, who had offered no explanations at the time of publication. Efforts to reach Chapdelaine at home were unsuccessful because his telephone number is unlisted.

Professor Fraedrich cited the Sarban-Oxley Act of 2002 that was signed by President George W. Bush that holds company heads and boards more responsible for unethical behavior. Fraedrich said that although the new law doesn’t apply to RVC, passage of the act sends a “clear signal that the buck stops with the college president and the board” in terms of financial responsibility.

Before coming to the College of Lake County (Ill.), President Gretchen Naff worked in a variety of positions from 1980 to 1990 at Cumberland County College in Vineland, N.J. In 1989, Naff was a vice president who worked under Chapdelaine for six months before leaving.

The Times asked Naff about her own expenditures as a president of a community college. Naff said that her and a college’s spending “should reflect the community’s values.”

Naff reacted to details of Chapdeaine’s apparent contributions by repeating, “Contributions from Gretchen Naff are from Gretchen Naff.” She also expressed surprise at Chapdelaine’s country club expenses by joking that she should renegotiate her contract.

Board member

The RVC board of trustees not only approved Chapdelaine’s expenditures but encouraged them, according to RVC Board Secretary and Winnebago County Board member Chris Johnson (R-4). Johnson’s response to Chapdelaine’s questionable and possibly illegal expenditures: “I run a café, we break laws all the time. We’ll wait for your report, and if we need to make changes, we’ll make them.”

A retired judicial, legislative and election expert who wished to remain anonymous said the two known $50 contributions to Winters were against state election law in the 1990s. The source also said the apparent charitable contributions were “questionable.”

According to the source, “smart public officials get around laws that restrict use of public funds for political and charitable contributions by having the boards that supervise them increase their salary for the amount they wish to contribute.” By increasing the public official’s salary, the funds change from being public to private, and taxes are paid on the increased income.

Political contributions

On Dec. 3, 2002, Kostantacos delivered another in a series of letters to The Times explaining the college’s delay in complying with the original FOIA request.

The letter reads: “The materials which I provided to you in response to your Freedom of Information Act request contained documentation identifying a political contribution as an expense. This expense was reimbursed personally by Dr. Chapdelaine. A copy of the receipt is enclosed.” The receipt is dated Nov. 26, 2002, and refers to check No. 1051, which corresponds to a different contribution made to Winters’ campaign on May 8, 2000. A notation adjacent to the receipt indicates a date that appears to read “5/8/00” but has been circled and scratched out with a note that says, “was incorrect date. 9/5/01.” Yet, the check number on the receipt indicates that the reimbursement was for the May 8, 2000, contribution rather than the Sept. 5, 2001, contribution that was requested.

Assuming the receipt provided corresponds with the May 8, 2000, contribution, nearly two and a half years passed before Chapdelaine reimbursed the college for the political contribution. In addition, the reimbursement was made the same day (Nov. 26, 2002) Kostantacos delivered some of the expense documents The Times requested more than a month prior.

On Dec. 10, 2002, Konstantacos delivered another letter that explained Chapdelaine reimbursed the college for using taxpayers’ money to make another political contribution to Winters. The receipt, dated Nov. 1, 2001, is for $50 but doesn’t indicate with which payment it corresponds. In this case, assuming the receipt corresponds with another contribution to Winters’ campaign, the college was reimbursed two months after the check was cut.

Again, the college and Kostantacos have not offered an explanation for the delay in reimbursement and why Chapdelaine used college funds for the contributions. However, Johnson said Chapdelaine was under “peer pressure” to donate to Winters because “the events [for Winters] were held at RVC.” When asked, Johnson would not say who pressured Chapdelaine to contribute.

The sequence of events concerning the checks, reimbursements and FOIA request calls into question whether Chapdelaine would have paid back the college for at least one of the contributions had it not been for the original FOIA request.

State Board of Elections records show on Sept. 9, 2002, Chapdelaine made a $300 contribution to Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn’s (R) campaign. It is not known if taxpayer funds were used for this contribution because no checks beyond May 2002 were submitted to The Times as asked for in the FOIA.

Interpretation of law

The receipts suggest Chapdelaine was concerned about reimbursing the college for the political contributions, but the payments were not paid promptly. As a result, Chapdelaine may have to deal with Logli’s or other state’s attorneys’ interpretation of the law.

Logli told The Times: “In general, tax dollars should not be used for outright political and charitable contributions. If the money paid to a charity is for an important event, then that could be a legitimate expense.”

When asked if the expenses were legal just because they were or were not described in Chapdelaine’s contract, Logli paused and said, “not necessarily.”

Seemingly, RVC is not academically alone in its questionable practices, The Chicago Tribune reported in its Jan. 19, 2003 issue that the University of Illinois used taxpayer dollars to pay for “trustees, and administrators spent taxpayer money on pricey charter flights, premier restaurants and luxurious hotels.

Editor’s Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that Jeff Havens was an employee at Rock Valley College (RVC) from 2000 to 2002 before he was fired by the board of trustees after publicly criticizing the president and the board of trustees and calling for their resignations. Havens also was one of the leaders of a union organizing effort for staff at the college.

RVC’s administration alleges Havens interfered with students’ ability to learn and exercised undue influence on a student trustee.

None of the information included in this article, or the series, was obtained while Havens was an employee of the college.

College President Roland Chapdelaine and RVC Public Relations Director Liz Stirling have been given ample time to respond to questions regarding this article and have refused to do so. Havens gave Stirling a list of questions that she has not responded to and that she said she won’t respond to.

When contacted Jan. 21, Stirling said neither she nor Chapdelaine would respond to questions. Even after being reminded that she is the public relations director (and official spokesman for the college), Stirling said, “I’m not going to be put in that position,” when asked to respond to questions regarding the article.

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