Judge stops NIU from paying rest of ousted president’s severance package

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A DeKalb County judge Friday barred Northern Illinois University from paying the remainder of ousted President Doug Baker’s severance package while the court considers whether school trustees violated the law when they approved the deal.

But Baker — who left in June after the release of a state report alleging improper spending during his tenure — already has received most of his money, including a $450,000 payment to end his contract a year early and another $137,500 to resign from his tenured position at the business school.

NIU will not have to claw the money back under the ruling by Circuit Judge Bradley Waller, university officials said. Instead, while the case is still pending, the school will withhold any remaining reimbursements for legal expenses Baker incurred during his 4-year tenure.

Trustees had agreed to pay him up to $30,000 for “reasonable, unpaid expenses for legal counsel.”

All totaled, Baker’s severance package is worth up to $617,500.

A lawsuit filed earlier this summer by Misty Haji-Sheikh, a DeKalb County board member who is also taking graduate classes at Northern Illinois, accused NIU trustees of violating the state’s Open Meetings Act by withholding details of Baker’s severance until the end of their meeting, which did not give the public sufficient time to review the terms before board members approved the exit deal.

Haji-Sheikh’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

According to the suit, the board typically holds an open session at the meetings and follows that with a closed session. But on June 15, it said, the board departed from that practice and reserved one item on the agenda for a second open session, after the closed session, which lasted more than seven hours.

The only item to discuss in that second open session was Baker’s departure — vaguely described on the agenda as “presidential employment.” No public comment was sought, the suit said.

The board’s vote came about two weeks after the release of a damning report from the Governor’s Office of Executive Inspector General, which alleged ethical violations on Baker’s watch. Though the public only learned about the report in late May, trustees had known about it for nearly a year when they approved the severance package.

The report, among other things, alleged that administrators under his leadership routinely skirted ethics requirements to hire highly paid consultants, covered the consultants’ housing and travel expenses, and then kept them on staff for too long at lofty pay levels.

Baker has denied the report’s assertions, but said he had reached the conclusion he could not continue as university president because the investigation proved a “significant distraction.”

The inspector general launched the inquiry into Northern Illinois’ hiring practices in 2014 following several anonymous tips. Illinois law requires state agencies to publicly bid out contracts for professional services from an independent contractor worth more than $20,000.

But the report found that the university hired nine employees between June 2013 and May 2015, paying them all more than $20,000, but never solicited bids for those jobs.

In all, investigators wrote, Northern Illinois spent more than $1 million on the five highest-paid of those employees.

sstclair@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StacyStClair

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August 4, 2017 at 06:33PM

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Judge stops NIU from paying rest of ousted president’s severance package

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