By Shane Nicholson
An Office of Executive Inspector General investigation into Northern Illinois University’s hiring and spending practices has found that President Doug Baker routinely circumvented state laws and regulations to reward friends and associates.
The report, commissioned after watchdog groups and whistleblowers questioned Baker’s use of the so-called “affiliate employee” classification for hires in key university positions, shows what investigators call a pattern of dodging procurement code requirements.
“As a result of (Baker’s) actions, since 2013 NIU has paid over $1 million in public funds to consultants who were not selected through a competitive procurement process,” the report released Wednesday said.
NIU, like all public institutions in the state, is required to utilize competitive bids for independent contractors receiving more than $20,000 in compensation per year. The report lays out Baker’s repeated use of the affiliate employee classification to duck such laws in hiring.
In addition, the school, facing millions of dollars in cuts due to a $35 million funding gap, has paid nearly $200,000 in legal fees to outside counsel for Baker during the course of the OEIG investigation.
“Universities have lawsuits on a regular basis. Any university our size probably has a few dozen lawsuits ongoing at any time,” Baker previously 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.”
However, the OEIG report states Baker “mismanaged Northern Illinois University by allowing the improper hiring of individuals into the affiliate position.”
The report also found support staff to Baker had assisted in the practices, and some had further used their positions to gain extra payments over and above their salaries.
In one case, former interim CFO Nancy Suttenfield had an additional $920 added to her initial paycheck for what Baker said was “additional pay for increased duties.” Those payments ultimately totaled more than $29,000, money Baker said was to offset Suttenfield’s cost of commuting to the university.
Another Baker hire, Ron Walters, received $463,125 in compensation as an affiliate employee from June 2013 to Dec. 2014. According to the report, Baker described Walters as a friend and explained to then NIU Dir. of Human Resources Steve Cunningham that Walters was a “turnaround consultant.”
The OEIG report says that when Cunningham informed Baker the school could not pay Walters more than $20,000 for his services, “Baker showed a ‘high degree’ of dissatisfaction with the Procurement Code,” and that Baker instructed Cunningham to “find a way” to onboard Walters.
Another Baker associate named in the report, Magaly Rodriguez, previously worked for the president during his tenure as provost at the University of Idaho.
Baker described Rodriguez as his “Chief Inspiration Officer” at Idaho, paying her $12,500 a month as a contractor. Rodriguez followed Baker to NIU and received $85,000 in compensation as an affiliate employee from May 2014 to Jan. 2015, being hired after Baker had been informed that he was abusing the affiliate classification, the OEIG report says.
Baker commissioned a 2014 report meant to stem the tide of outside investigations into his office. That four-month investigation cost the school $468,050.39 and yielded only an oral report of “recommendations for improved reliability of financial reporting and compliance with laws, regulations and policies.”
The firm hired by Baker to compile the 2014 report is party to a lawsuit against NIU, its Board of Trustees, Baker and Suttenfield by former university Controller Keith Jackson. Jackson’s lawsuit states that the Alvarez & Marsal firm was retained by Baker to “dredge for evidence of wrongdoing” by Jackson and other employees targeted for termination by the president.
Baker, in a May 1 letter, disputed the findings of the OEIG report, saying, “I respectfully submit strong disagreement with the report’s findings and hereby request a correction regarding the adverse finding of mismanagement”.
Baker further defended his actions in a post on the NIU website Wednesday, saying, “I disagree with any implications that there was intent to circumvent NIU’s guidelines or state regulations.”
But the OEIG stood by its initial findings, and recommended the NIU Board of Trustees “take whatever action it deems appropriate with regard to President Baker.” R.
Read the complete report: