NIU probes existence of ‘coffee fund’


DeKALB – A local scrap metal company employee says his business has paid thousands of dollars to Northern Illinois University employees selling scrap metal from the university, who then deposit the money in an account known as “the coffee fund.”

Bill Kunkel, head of transportation for DeKalb Iron and Metal Company in DeKalb, said that for years he’s been writing checks to what’s called the “coffee fund,” an account NIU spokesman Paul Palian said university officials weren’t aware existed.

Kunkel said several employees, mainly from NIU’s Physical Plant, have sold scrap metal from the university to DIMCO on and off for at least the past 25 years. The company’s electronic records date back to February 2005, and checks from DIMCO since that time have totaled more than $13,000.

“It’s not going back to Northern,” said Kunkel.

Kathryn Buettner, vice president of university relations, said NIU Police plan to open an investigation immediately. She said Friday was the first time she or other administrators had heard about the coffee fund and said NIU takes the allegations very seriously.

According to company records, items sold over the years to benefit the coffee fund included 1,040 pounds of shear iron and 4,180 pounds of prepared iron.

The single biggest payout in the past five years was $778 for 5,560 pounds of galvanized clips that were dropped off in March.

In June of this year, DIMCO wrote about $770 worth of checks made out to the coffee fund. Cancelled checks from 2011 and 2012 provided by Kunkel were deposited into a coffee fund bank account by a person with the same name as an employee at the Physical Plant.

Kunkel said employees often used university-owned vehicles to drop off the scrap, usually coming in on Saturdays; sometimes they sent family members. Kunkel said when he asked what the coffee fund was for, he was told the money was split between several workers at the Physical Plant, who sometimes used the money for cookouts, or purchased coffee and food for the office.

Kunkel said the company keeps separate accounts for different NIU funds, including the Physical Plant and telecommunications department. He said he grew suspicious years ago, when NIU employees began asking him to pay a small percentage to the university and a larger percentage to the employee who dropped off the scrap, which prompted him to contact the university.

After that call, he received a letter in February of 2000 from a budget analyst in the Physical Plant office saying a designated university employee would be in charge of the drop-off from that point forward. Kunkel was asked not to pay any money to the representative, but instead issue a check once a month to NIU’s Physical Plant.

Kunkel said scrap metal transactions with NIU employees dropped sharply after that policy was implemented, but new faces gradually showed up and checks were once again directed to the coffee fund.

“Just because it’s scrap and it’s there, people think it’s theirs,” he said. “That’s not right.”

Until last week, the Physical Plant was overseen by Robert Albanese, the former associate vice president in the Division of Finance and Facilities. Albanese retired last week for personal reasons, according to Palian.

Albanese could not be reached for comment.

In the same week, John Gordon, director of the Convocation Center, resigned for personal reasons, Palian said. The Convocation Center also is overseen by the Division of Finance and Facilities, but Palian has said the two departures are unrelated.

After those positions were vacated, NIU reorganized its Division of Finance and Facilities, effective Thursday. Jeffrey Daurer, who was director of the capital budget and planning, is now an associate vice president who oversees the Physical Plant, the Grounds Department and the Campus Heating Plant.

Palian said the administrators he spoke with Friday had no knowledge of the coffee fund and that it was against the university’s code of ethics to use university vehicles for personal purposes. He said the coffee fund would likely prompt an internal investigation.