Why COD board majority acted quickly to enact reforms

  • Circuit Judge Paul Fullerton swears in Deanne Mazzochi, Charles Bernstein and Frank Napolitano to the College of DuPage board of trustees. Soon after, the trio were helping enact a series of sweeping reforms at the Glen Ellyn-based community college.

      Circuit Judge Paul Fullerton swears in Deanne Mazzochi, Charles Bernstein and Frank Napolitano to the College of DuPage board of trustees. Soon after, the trio were helping enact a series of sweeping reforms at the Glen Ellyn-based community college. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/1/2015 5:55 PM

With College of DuPage facing state and federal investigations and questions about its spending practices, members of the new majority on its board of trustees say they needed to move quickly to implement reforms to "stop the bleeding," prevent problems from festering and set a new tone.

So in the first several hours after being sworn in on Thursday night, three newly elected COD trustees joined with new board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton to hire two new law firms, authorize the state to conduct a performance audit, approve an internal investigation and place embattled school President Robert Breuder on administrative leave.

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All of those decisions came in 4-3 votes of the seven-member panel, with holdover trustees Erin Birt, Dianne McGuire and Joseph C. Wozniak providing the opposition -- at least partially because they said they weren't given input into the agenda.

"You don't let problems fester," said new Trustee Deanne Mazzochi, who was seated Thursday along with fellow Hamilton allies Charles Bernstein and Frank Napolitano. "The prior board let problems sit and fester, and now problems have gotten exponentially worse. So we need to stop the bleeding and get things under control."

The Glen Ellyn-based community college has been under intense scrutiny since last summer, when Breuder lost a $20 million state grant after one of his emails -- intimating that the school should create a reason why it needed the money -- was made public.

The controversy intensified in January when members of the prior board approved a $762,868 buyout package for Breuder, who is scheduled to retire next March.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Then, after government watchdog groups raised questions about how taxpayers' money was being spent, federal authorities launched a criminal investigation.

As part of that probe, subpoenas were issued requesting years of records related to Breuder, college trustees, senior management personnel and COD Foundation members. DuPage County prosecutors also issued subpoenas seeking years of spending records and contract information for Breuder.

Mazzochi says that's why the new board couldn't afford to wait to take action.

"I think our agenda (Thursday night) signals to taxpayers, signals to legislators, signals to faculty and students, we are going to resolve these problems," she said. "We're going to bring things back on the right track."

The first step toward implementing those reforms was to put Breuder on paid administrative leave. The vote came just two days after the college announced Breuder was going on medical leave for unspecified reasons and for an unspecified period of time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mazzochi said putting an employee on administrative leave is a procedural step that's commonly taken when there's an investigation.

"Part of the whole point of an administrative leave is you want to ensure that you're preserving evidence," she said. "You don't want someone to start destroying documents or emails."

As part of his leave, Breuder must surrender "all keys, telephones, computers and other equipment or devices" the college has provided to him. He also needs written authorization from Hamilton to be on campus or attend college events.

In addition, the board hired a law firm to conduct its own internal investigation of the school.

McGuire opposed that move, questioning why it's necessary when federal authorities already are looking into the school.

But Mazzochi said the college's internal probe will have different standards of proof than the federal investigation. "Our primary goal is to make sure the operation is running efficiently, effectively for the betterment of the students," she said.

Bernstein, meanwhile, said the internal investigation will give officials the opportunity to see how money is being spent at the Waterleaf, a 130-seat upscale restaurant that opened in October 2011 on the COD campus.

The Waterleaf has never made a profit and lost more than $536,000 in fiscal 2014. Additionally, records show some school administrators and board members spent taxpayer money on meals and drinks at the restaurant.

"I do not know if the U.S. Attorney will get around to (investigating the Waterleaf) now or next year or the year after," Bernstein said. "I think it is very important for the college to understand what's going on at that restaurant. That, to me, is a fundamental reason why we need to do this -- and we need to do it in a timely manner."

Mazzochi said the new majority also wanted to move quickly Thursday to "set the tone from the top."

"So no more drinking wine on the taxpayer dime," Mazzochi said. "No more luxury travel that's unnecessary. We need to be accountable to the people who elected us. These are the things that they told us they wanted."

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