Inside the College of DuPage meeting to buy out Breuder

Even Breuder foe Hamilton called $762,867 buyout negotiation "phenomenal"

 
 
Updated 7/31/2015 1:43 PM
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  • A $762,867 severance package awarded to Robert Breuder sparked a firestorm of criticism and scrutiny of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

      A $762,867 severance package awarded to Robert Breuder sparked a firestorm of criticism and scrutiny of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

During a closed-door meeting last Dec. 18, then-College of DuPage board Chairwoman Erin Birt laid out for the board a new deal to buy out the remainder of President Robert Breuder's contract.

He'd accept $762,867, she said, down from an initial proposal of $1.5 million, which would have been his pay during the last three years of his contract.

Even Breuder's most vocal critic, then-board member Kathy Hamilton, praised Birt's negotiating skills.

"I think you did wonderfully, Erin, in getting that number down," she said.

"I have to be honest with you, I think you did phenomenal work there."

Something clearly changed in the month that followed.

When it came to vote in public on the deal, Hamilton cast the lone "no" vote, saying, "To award a golden parachute to Dr. Breuder is nothing more than a wanton betrayal of our students. Instead we should show Dr. Breuder the door."

An audio recording of the closed-door Dec. 18 strategy session, which was mailed anonymously to the Daily Herald, also shows that all seven college trustees were eager to part ways with Breuder, while his departure was being crafted as a carefully scripted retirement announcement.

It was one of at least five meetings in which the board discussed the buyout between April 2014 and January.

The $762,867 severance package that eventually was approved sparked a firestorm of criticism that would invite intense media and public scrutiny, and eventually lead to the ouster of incumbent board members who ran for re-election and the election of a slate that would make Hamilton board chairwoman.

In the wake of this firestorm came multiple exposes that triggered state and federal probes into the Glen Ellyn-based school's administrative practices and even called COD's accreditation standing into question.

Finally, some clarity

The 70-minute recording -- which the college refused to provide earlier this year when the Daily Herald submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and urged its release in an editorial -- offers the first detailed explanation of the buyout.

It should be noted that because the recording took place during a closed meeting, the Daily Herald was not present when it was made. But all indications on the recording point to it being authentic.

Neither Breuder nor his attorney participated in the meeting and were not available for comment for this story.

A straw poll during the meeting indicated unanimous support to buy out Breuder, though when the issue of conferring upon Breuder the honorary title of "president emeritus" arose, Hamilton bristled. She called her feelings on the deal as a whole "a mixed bag."

There is no indication any trustees would speak out publicly against the deal, though. Instead, all seemed to agree there would be one "unified statement."

The recording revealed board members in a largely congenial setting discussing:

• The amount of Breuder's final buyout and how it would be paid.

• Breuder's apparent interest in being named president emeritus upon his departure.

• The timing of his departure.

• A non-solicitation clause designed to prevent him from raiding the COD staff.

• A previous board's decision to have the school's Homeland Security Education Center building named in Breuder's honor.

The recording had Birt, who along with board attorney Respicio Vazquez played a key role in brokering the deal, calling the proposed $762,867 buyout figure a "lowball offer" and a "home run."

"Everybody at this table says, 'Yeah, it's time for him (Breuder) to go' for various reasons," Birt said. "Here's finally something that sounds like we're all saying, 'OK, this is mutually acceptable.' I'd like him to say 'yes' to this. I'd like us to have this solidified."

Birt called for a straw poll with two goals -- to ensure everyone could support the agreement and that the board would speak with a unified voice when the pact was made public.

Trustees Kim Savage and Nancy Svoboda, both of whom would be ousted in the April election, said "yes." So did Allison O'Donnell, who didn't seek re-election. So did Dianne McGuire and Joseph Wozniak, who like Birt are still board members.

Hamilton was less certain.

She said she wanted Breuder out of office long before the proposed March 2016 departure date. And she opposed any move to name him president emeritus.

President emeritus

The Dec. 18 discussion about what Birt said was Breuder's request for emeritus status triggered some of the most heated debate in the audio recording.

The attorney, Vazquez, told the board Breuder was "very, very particular about awards and recognitions" and the emeritus status was important to him.

To obtain such status at COD, however, would require Breuder or anyone else to serve the college for at least 15 years -- although board policy allows trustees to make exceptions.

"It's not a monetary thing," Birt said. "It's just a recognition that we thought he did an OK job here."

Svoboda, a retired COD professor, said she held emeritus status and there was a list of faculty members with such status on the school's website. "People really don't know what it is, and nobody cares," Svoboda said.

But Hamilton was adamant that she did not want to praise Breuder. She held him responsible for posting details on the COD website of her August 2014 censure by the board -- a move she said was in retaliation for speaking out against the college's spending practices.

"I have a problem with the emeritus status thing because that guy put my censure on the goddamn board of trustee(s) website," she said. "If he wants emeritus status, I'm not going to do anything until he takes that thing off."

She brought the issue up again later during the discussion.

"I feel it's kind of nasty and petty to put my censure on the board website," she said. "I feel like I can't give him any accolades when he's done nothing but try and attack my reputation."

Despite those reservations, Hamilton sounded agreeable.

"I will not demean the public vote by getting into, you know, nitty-gritty stuff," she said.

A month later, that unified front began to unravel.

The unraveling

Breuder's departure became public on Jan. 22 when the board approved a four-page agreement, which was characterized as a retirement -- not a buyout.

In a letter to the board, Breuder, 70, who joined the school in January 2009, wrote: "With age comes the inevitable reality that time is precious."

Breuder's letter read: "During the Christmas holidays, I took time to look ahead and define my future. I concluded the time was at hand to make a life decision."

But Birt's hope for a unified board front crumbled when Hamilton voted "no."

Breuder declined to comment after the meeting. Birt said simply, "The board agreed it was a fair number."

Hamilton later said the deal represented "compensation to an individual that has demonstrated poor management, judgment and financial oversight."

"The sum is absolutely inappropriate," she said. "It's more than inappropriate. It's extravagant and outlandish."

Glenn Hansen, the president of COD's faculty union, criticized the board for failing to make details of the agreement public before the vote.

The board took a second vote on the deal later in January to "clarify a procedural motion to approve" the agreement.

This time hundreds of residents, students and faculty members turned out. Dozens urged board members to reconsider. But the vote came out the same: 6-1.

Political changes

In addition to voting "no" twice on the buyout package, Hamilton later vowed to "claw back" Breuder's deal. In February, she announced formation of a like-minded group of candidates for three seats on the COD board, a campaign she helped finance.

During editorial endorsement interviews with the Daily Herald, different views of what led to Breuder's buyout emerged. A member of the newspaper's editorial board asked Hamilton if she would agree to the release of the recordings of the closed-door discussions, and she replied, "I don't see why not."

In April, the three Hamilton candidates were elected from a field of 12. She was immediately elected board chairwoman, replacing Birt. The college announced Breuder would be taking medical leave just days before the board voted to put him on administrative leave.

In May, Hamilton said she would release the recordings of Breuder's buyout talks -- if the board's lawyers concurred. On May 13, Hamilton said the attorneys denied the request, saying the recordings involve personnel matters and potential litigation.

Responses

Contacted recently about her initial support of the buyout and her subsequent "no" votes and harsh words, Hamilton said, "It was an ongoing discussion. You can't take things out of context."

Beyond that, she refused to discuss specifics.

"This is a very old topic," she said. "The college is moving forward. We're focusing in on educating (COD's students), and that's my focus."

Yet just three days earlier, Hamilton criticized the buyout deal to an accreditation team that was visiting the campus.

Meanwhile, Birt, who hasn't spoken publicly before about Breuder's buyout, issued a statement regarding Hamilton's change of heart.

"Hamilton lied to the public about her behavior behind closed doors," Birt wrote. "She was fine with the terms, even complimented the $762,000, which paled in comparison to her proposals, and she knew there was no basis to fire Dr. Breuder."

Beyond that, Birt refused to comment.

Ex-Trustee Savage also gave this statement: "When we discussed the severance agreement in December, I thought all of the trustees were on board with the terms. Otherwise, we would not have asked the attorney to move forward with it. I was disappointed that Trustee Hamilton publicly denounced the package. I was not surprised because that was not the first time she had changed her mind after I thought we had a solid agreement on something."

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