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6 NIU employees charged with felony theft back at work

(MCT) — Northern Illinois University is allowing six of the eight employees facing work-related felony theft charges to return to their jobs while awaiting trial.

The DeKalb-based university — which made a public announcement when it placed the employees on paid administrative leave after they were charged in an alleged scheme to sell university scrap materials — quietly reinstated the six staff members after the holiday break.

After questions from the Tribune, NIU spokesman Paul Palian acknowledged that controller Keith Jackson, who handles the university's financial accounting, returned to work Monday. Five other employees, all of whom work in the materials management department, resumed their duties Jan. 2.

"I don't think they would bring them back to work if they didn't feel comfortable that they could perform the duties of the job," Palian said. "We have always stated that the criminal charges are separate."

Two of the employees who returned to work had been on paid leave since August and the others were put on paid leave in October, the week after they were charged with felonies over their alleged roles in a long-running practice of selling university scrap material and depositing the money in a private bank account. Proceeds in the so-called coffee fund account allegedly were used for holiday parties, retirement parties and other social functions.

The employees were indicted on the charges in December. All either declined comment or could not be reached for comment this week.

While on leave, the employees were paid their regular salaries as NIU officials investigated the unauthorized account. At least $13,000 had been deposited into the account in the past six years, and about $2,100 was in it when it was closed in August and the balance transferred to the university's general fund.

The eight employees are expected back in court this month or in February. Also charged is a former NIU senior administrator, Robert Albanese, who had been associate vice president for finance and facilities before he resigned in July while under investigation on separate misconduct allegations.

An internal review by NIU officials determined that six of the employees could return to their jobs this month. No disciplinary action was taken against them, Palian said.

In addition to Jackson, they are Michael Hall, a traffic manager; Joseph Alberti, an account technician; Keenon Darlinger, a storekeeper; Mark Beaird, an inventory specialist; and Susan Zahm, an inventory specialist.

The NIU employees who remain on paid leave are Kenneth Pugh, director of the materials management department, and Lawrence Murray, manager of the property control department. Their cases require "more administrative review" because of their supervisory roles, Palian said.

All of the employees except Jackson are charged with felony theft. All but Alberti are charged with felony official misconduct.

The decision to reinstate the employees raises eyebrows, in part, because public entities tend to wait for the criminal case to conclude before deciding whether an accused employee should return to the job, said Maribeth Vander Weele, the former Chicago Public Schools inspector general and president of the Vander Weele Group, a corporate investigations firm that specializes in preventing and investigating fraud schemes.

The best practice would be to keep the employees on paid leave until their legal cases end, she said.

"This is not about job duties," Vander Weele said. "It's about integrity. Your integrity is certainly undermined if you return six employees charged with felonies to their jobs. It sends a terrible message that this behavior is tolerated by your organization."

In a written statement provided by Palian, NIU wrote that its general counsel's office reviewed records and university policies and then "advised and recommended that six return to work immediately and resume their duties on behalf of the university."

In contrast, a DeKalb County grand jury reviewed similar records and opted to indict those same employees last month. Though the indictments do not change the nature of the case, they signal that prosecutors presented the evidence to the grand jury and the panel believed authorities had probable cause to charge the employees with felonies.

NIU officials cited the pending legal proceedings in declining further comment. "This is particularly difficult but essential to protect rights and preserve the integrity and requirements of the judicial process," the statement said.

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