Jim Dey | DuPage college scandal continues to make big waves

Jim Dey | DuPage college scandal continues to make big waves

In 2014, a member of a public spending watchdog group decided to take a look at how the largest community college in Illinois — the College of DuPage — was spending its money.

Four years later, they're still fighting over the ramifications of what OpentheBooks' Adam Andrzejewski found.

The battle, however, has moved from the college's board room to the courts, where former college President Robert Breuder, who was summarily fired in 2015, is suing the college and several of its board members for defamation and an arbitrary dismissal that denied him a $762,868-plus buyout.

In response, the college recently filed a counter-claim against Breuder detailing a laundry list of wrongdoing and seeking $25 million in damages.

Proponents of government transparency contend that sunlight is the best disinfectant. What few mention, however, is that it also can be, under the proper circumstances, a magnificent accelerant.

That's the case at the College of DuPage, where the fire continues to burn out of control as a consequence of Breuder's six-year reign. To say that he was a high-handed, micro-managing leader who had his board of trustees eating out of his hand understates the degree of control he exercised.

To suggest that he was concerned about — and possibly fearful of — the extent of his actions becoming known is confirmed by the facts.

The countersuit filed by the college asserts that when federal and state criminal investigators sought internal documents from Breuder's college-issued iPad, he turned it over after deleting "all electronically-stored information" that was on it.

The lawsuit alleges that on April 28, 2015, the day after Breuder acknowledged receiving a memo directing him to preserve the subpoenaed information, he restored the iPad "to factory settings," a move that "wiped" the iPad clean.

That allegation barely scratches the surface of the claims and counter-claims between the two warring parties.

But they confirm the obvious — without real accountability and oversight, high-ranking executives can, and sometimes do, run wild with other people's money.

For his part, Dr. Breuder is apologizing for nothing, asserting that he is the wronged party.

To a certain extent, a federal appeals court agreed. It recently ruled that Breuder deserved a hearing in which to defend himself before the college dismissed him.

Breuder's lawsuit alleges that he was "deprived of his civil and constitutional rights when (the college) wrongfully terminated his employment in violation of his contracts, without due process, and based on false charges of misconduct that were asserted (by individual trustees) to further their personal interests and political agendas."

What Breuder alleges, principally, is a breach of contract for which he entitled to compensation.

What the college alleges in its counter-claim is a horrendous breach of public trust by Breuder, who allegedly used taxpayers dollars to fund a lavish lifestyle.

"For years, Breuder ran the college like his own private enterprise rather than a taxpayer-funded public institution," the college alleges.

It further alleges that he "oversaw reckless spending" and "neglected many of the nuts-and-bolts" of administration.

"Breuder and his friends spent lavishly at the fancy restaurant he ordered built within months of his arrival on campus. He then had the college pick up the tab," the counter-lawsuit alleges.

As a consequence of the Breuder scandal at DuPage, a subject of widespread interest to and intense coverage by the Chicago-area news media, the DuPage faculty passed its first-ever "no confidence" resolution in a school president, the college's accreditation was put on probation by the Higher Learning Commission and the state auditor general oversaw a "highly critical" audit of the college's financial controls.

The College of DuPage covers a majority of DuPage County plus parts of Will and Cook counties. It's one of the 10 largest community colleges in this country.

Despite its ample resources, including as much as $274 million in cash reserves, Breuder oversaw a 30 percent increase in tuition while using college funds to underwrite political campaigns to pass property tax hikes that funded his ambitious building plans.

Breuder allegedly spent "over half a billion dollars on construction" while ignoring the traditional bidding process and personally choosing the architects and contractors, including those who served on the college's foundation. In turn, the foundation paid many of Breuder's personal expenses.

The college alleges that "Breuder micro-managed the construction projects he initiated. ...oversaw every detail of the Waterleaf Restaurant within the Culinary Institute. ...he made the final decision on the flatware used, the expensive painting on the wall and even the width of the foam on he seat cushion."

"Cost was not an issue — despite the fact that Breuder was running a taxpayer-funded college," the counter-lawsuit charges.

That all came to a crashing halt after OpenTheBooks took a look at the college's book. After angry voters installed three new trustees, Breuder was sent packing, allegedly in violation of his contractual right to defend himself.

It's a huge mess, one that is costing taxpayers even more for legal expenses.

One of the great mysteries is yet to be explained. Where was the oversight?

Why were trustees so willing to shower Breuder with perks and pay and allow him to act as a one-man ruler? The DuPage trustees are not the first to forget their fiduciary duties as guardians of the public trust, but their failure was on a scale that rarely seen.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 27-351-3569.