Investigation Looks Into Mounting Legal Fees For NIU President

May 13, 2017

Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker recently announced a financial update as the campus continues to struggle with the effects of the statewide budget impasse. The student-run Northern Star newspaper recently reported on an area of the university's finances that doesn't get as much attention.

Credit Northern Star

Ian Tancun is a reporter for the Northern Star. After a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, his investigation revealed the university has paid thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend NIU President Doug Baker. It stems from a state probe by the agency which looks into allegations of misconduct.

He spoke with WNIJ about his findings:

What do you know about the nature of the state investigation?

Tancun: We don't know much actually. President Baker and NIU both indicated that they couldn't discuss the nature of the investigation. They both indicated that the OEIG has asked that they not discuss it, so we don't know what it's about.

You were also in contact with President Baker as you worked on this story. How did he respond to the lawsuit?

Tancun: He did express that he was sorry the university was having to incur these fees. That was the extent of him having to discuss that issue. I think he was as forthcoming as he could be. I am not sure if the Baker administration fully grasps the perception on-campus. We are in the midst of a financial crisis here and, at the same time, we are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for the investigation around him. I don't know if they entirely grasp the pulse on campus.

You found that this legal counsel though costs more per hour than NIU typically pays for outside counsel. How has the university responded to that?

Tancun: President Baker indicated that he had a good working relationship with this law firm. He was the one that hired them, so that's why he opted to choose them despite the higher cost. It was because of his comfort level with them.

Recently, the Faculty Senate tabled a vote of confidence in President Baker. You spoke with the Faculty Senate Speaker. What did he have to say about the state investigation?

Tancun: He was very clear to point out that we shouldn't assume guilt as far as what they are investigating. He was very clear that we shouldn't jump to any conclusions. He stressed the fact that it was a small percentage of the faculty that expressed concerns about this.

Did you have any difficulty accessing this material?

Tancun: The difficulty was just reviewing this material. There were literally hundreds of pages of documents. A lot of it was legal invoices that I had to sift through. As far as obtaining the documents, I can't say there were difficulties in doing that.

Why did you decide to request these documents now?

Tancun: We published a Letter to the Editor in March. I had heard some fellow classmates express concerns as well in regards to President Baker. That's what spurred me looking into this. I had heard rumors, and I don't want to report rumors. I wanted to get to the facts, so that's what drove this.

The university provided WNIJ a statement related to covering legal fees. It reads:

“Just like most other businesses, the university has an obligation to provide legal services to any employee facing allegations resulting from the normal course of their work.

“That applies to the president, faculty, staff and all other employees of the university … that obligation is documented in the legislation of the Board of Trustees.

“The extent that University legal resources will be dedicated to any particular matter depends on a number of factors on a case-bycase basis.  This includes, but is not limited to, the complexity of matter, anticipated length and scope that the matter may take, the expertise of the in-house attorneys and staff, the workload of the in-house attorneys and staff when the matter arises, how many individuals/entities are impacted by the matter, the interests of the University and the individuals/entities that are involved, etc.  University legal resources are more than just financial expenditures.  It also includes, at a minimum, dedication of time, energy and staff to the matter.”