Northern Illinois University (ECWd) –
With over 33,000 pages in the OEIG investigation of Northern Illinois University, there must be many instances of wrongdoing to review. We have already started listing some possibilities, including the hiring of the consultants Ron Walters, Dr.Wally Pfeiffer, and the Talance Group, all of whom showed up at the same intersection of cronyism and state procurement rule violations. This is another story of a consultant crashing at the same crossroads.
Magaly Rodriguez is a friend of NIU’s President Baker. Ms. Rodriguez is co-owner of the consulting firm Volentum. Volenturm was originally hired in December 2013 to prepare and run a two day workshop; the cost to the University under this contract was only $15,000 plus transportation and hotel. Ironically, the memo from the President regarding this workshop refers to the University’s need for “ethically inspired leadership”—maybe the President should have listened to his own words.
Apparently, President Baker was quite happy with the results and wished to continue with additional workshops. However, if he wanted to retain Ms. Rodriguez’ services as a consultant, by state law, any additional contracts would need to go out to bid as the total payments would be over the $20,000 threshold. So President Baker used a tactic he had previously utilized with his friends Walters and Pfeiffer; in order to avoid state procurement rules, he HIRED Ms. Rodriguez as another “affiliate” employee. He blatantly confirmed this action in his letter to the Illinois Higher Education Travel Control Board (HETCB) (see final paragraph on page one).
Ms. Rodriguez, commonly referred to around campus as the VP of Inspiration, was called an “affiliate” employee from May 16, 2014 to January 31, 2015 and paid at a rate of $10,000 per month. Although on the payroll, it was still widely acknowledged by University personnel that Ms. Rodriguez was acting in her consultant role; this is confirmed by this internal email from Linda Blair (Acting Controller) which summoned her department to a workshop/retreat. The end result of this chicanery is that $85,000 was paid to a consultant through the payroll system in order to avoid state procurement rules.
But placing a consultant on payroll as an “employee” in order to avoid procurement rules is not new to President Baker, just new to NIU. When Baker was Provost at University of Idaho, he had hired Ms. Rodriguez in a similar manner (http://www.openidaho.org/2009/05/ui-cuts-big-check-for-chief-inspiration-officer/ ). This should have been an immediate red flag to regulators.
However, procurement rules aren’t the only state rules being broken by President Baker in his zeal to skirt the harsh constraints of the public procurement system. Since the President deliberately chose to classify Ms. Rodriguez as an “employee” so as to avoid procurement rules, the state employee travel rules now take effect. These rules include NO reimbursement of commuting costs. But again similar to Walters and Pfeiffer, the University reimbursed Ms. Rodriguez for the travel costs, along with supplying “free” hotel rooms while on campus. After the University was caught in violation of travel rules by the external auditors, President Baker requested special exceptions to the rules as shown in the letter above; these were not approved.
So are the violations now settled and state rules being followed? NOT BY THIS ADMINISTRATION! The President’s office managed to continue violating travel rules. Attached to the Travel Control Board request was a worksheet listing the specific reimbursement exceptions.
The worksheet shows only two airfare reimbursements made to Ms. Rodriguez: 5/13-15/14 ($744.21) and 8/13-22/14 ($305.20). However, the University somehow still paid for at least some of Ms. Rodriguez’ commuting costs. How, might one ask, did the President manage this? And why were the other violations not spotted by the external auditors? It is because the President’s office did not request payments to be made directly to Ms. Rodriguez as a travel reimbursement; instead, the President’s office deliberately HID the costs by directly purchasing the airline tickets on their own P-Cards (Procurement Cards); these cards are equivalent to a credit card, and therefore payments are made to the card issuer, not to an individual. If you look at excerpts from Dori Hooker’s (the President’s secretary) P-card transaction log, the first airfare purchase for Ms. Rodriguez is dated 4/30/14 for $541. This amount does not appear in the schedule of requested exceptions even though it was in the time period covered by the exception letter. So apparently the President’s office lied to the Travel Control Board. And then AFTER acknowledging that commuting travel could not be reimbursed, the University CONTINUED to pay for Ms. Rodriguez’ travel by paying for the tickets directly; this includes the airfare purchases dated 11/8/14 ($324.20), 12/9/14 ($423.20), 12/19/14 ($172.20), and 1/5/15 ($462.20) plus numerous upgrade charges (which is itself a violation of state travel rules). When one avenue for violating rules is shut down, the President’s office is exhibiting great innovation in finding another.
With over 33,000 pages of investigative documentation, there must be much more to look at. More possibilities to come.
This article and others brought to you exclusively thru “abuse of FOIA” LOL…