CARBONDALE — Already implicated in multiple improper hires, former Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn again appears to have violated university policy to hire a former colleague to a high-paying job, according to documents obtained by The Southern Illinoisan via Freedom of Information Act request.
In December, Dunn was found at fault by the Illinois Office of Executive Inspector General for signing his own inappropriate search waiver to hire Brad Colwell, a former colleague on the SIU Carbondale faculty with whom he ran an educational consulting business, to a $230,000-per-year position in the SIU System Office, in 2017.
The search waiver allowed Dunn to hire Colwell outside SIU’s hiring standards, which often require open, competitive candidate searches to ensure qualified applicants are chosen.
“No one else was considered for this position, the position was not posted, and no search was conducted,” ruled the OEIG report obtained by The Southern. “The position was simply given to Dr. Colwell.”
The Board of Trustees, which must approve all appointments within two reporting levels of the president or that carry a salary of more than $150,000, was never informed that Colwell was hired this way, the OEIG found, though in his justification of the search waiver, Dunn falsely claimed trustees approved.
Now, documents reveal Dunn used similar tactics to hire Mark Kolaz, a former colleague at the Illinois State Board of Education, to a series of year-long appointments in SIU’s Office of Governmental and Public Affairs, from January 2015 to January 2019.
Over several years, Dunn used search waivers to hire and rehire Kolaz, without competition. Scrutiny of those waivers, obtained by The Southern via FOIA, show justifications that appear to violate SIU search waiver rules.
Meanwhile, Dunn appears to have kept the Board of Trustees in the dark about Kolaz’s hiring, and about a mid-2017 change to Kolaz’s job title and salary, which should have required board approval because it raised his yearly wages over $150,000.
“To my knowledge, we were never aware that search waivers were used to hire Mark Kolaz, and we never approved his raise,” said SIU Board of Trustees Chairman J. Phil Gilbert. “As far as I know, none of his employment contracts ever came before the board.”
Indeed, a review of Board activities from 2014 to 2019 by The Southern shows the Board never approved any of Kolaz’s one-year contracts, nor did it approve his midyear job title change and salary increase.
By the time Gilbert and other members of the board became aware of issues surrounding Kolaz’s hire, last fall, Dunn had already stepped down as SIU president, after scrutiny of his emails revealed he’d quietly worked with Metro East legislators and SIU Edwardsville Chancellor Randy Pembrook to support legislation to dissolve the SIU system.
Kolaz’s status was referred to Dunn’s replacement, SIU Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey, Gilbert said, and Kolaz’s contract was not renewed when it expired in January.
SIU has since updated its hiring and search waiver policies, to “100 percent avoid situations like this,” in the future, Gilbert added.
But as the university embarks on a nationwide search for a new president, Kolaz’s story is a reminder of the importance of transparency in the university’s highest office, and the difficulty of detecting unethical behavior, when it arises there.
“The chairman and the board are the only layer of the accountability with the president,” Gilbert said. “The board must be able to trust the president to be transparent with it.”
A long relationship
Dunn’s professional relationship with Kolaz stretches back to at least 2004, when Dunn was appointed interim state superintendent at the Illinois State Board of Education. Shortly after taking the job, Dunn hired Kolaz as his Assistant Superintendent for Operations.
Within months of his hire as president of SIU, in February 2014, Dunn signed a purchase requisition to hire Kolaz as a consultant for a five-month stint.
When that expired, Dunn hired Kolaz officially. In January 2015, he was awarded a yearlong contract to a newly-created position: Director of Legislative Relations at SIU, tasked with “legislative advocacy ... at the federal and state levels.”
Kolaz brought significant government experience to the job, having been a staffer under Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Rod Blagojevich and a deputy director of the Illinois State Fair.
He also brought a history of alleged misconduct in public office.
In 2007, Kolaz resigned as chief of staff of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, after the Associated Press reported that a bulk-mailing business he co-owned had done $120,000 in business with the state, without a waiver from the governor’s office.
Kolaz and the company, Modern Mailing & Printing Services, also failed to get the governor’s clearance for additional contracts made with the state before Kolaz joined CMS, as legally required, the AP reported in 2007.
Kolaz joined SIU at a salary of about $140,000, below the level to require board approval. However, SIU rules say the hire still should have been approved by the board, because of its reporting proximity to the president.
Yet Kolaz’s hire is never mentioned in 2014, 2015 or 2016 board agendas, which include every appointment the board approved. Former trustees Joel Sambursky and Roger Herrin, who were on the board when Kolaz was hired, have no recollection of ever approving the action, they told The Southern.
Meanwhile, Kolaz’s search waiver was authored and signed by Dunn, with no apparent oversight.
As justification for the waiver, Dunn described “a need to have immediate coverage to handle federal and state legislative relations and advocacy with new officials taking seats,” and wrote that Kolaz would provide needed staffing given “extra media/exec. (sic) responsibilities” assigned to Executive Director for Governmental and Public Affairs, John Charles, to whom Kolaz reported.
Each January from 2016 to 2018, Kolaz was rehired with a new search waiver bearing the signature of Randy Dunn, and the same justification: a continued need for staffing and legislative relations coverage.
SIU hiring rules say search waivers should be granted on a case-by-case basis, and may last no more than a year.
They can provide the university with needed flexibility to act quickly in “urgent or unique circumstances,” the OEIG explained, in its December 2018 investigation, from temporarily filling a sudden vacancy, to securing the hire of an eminent scholar, to temporarily filling a position, while a search is conducted.
In Kolaz’s 2015 search waiver, Dunn seems to cite urgent need for a legislative liaison at SIU.
But repeated search waivers referencing continued demand for the same legislative advocacy suggest Kolaz’s hire was not a temporary response to an urgent or unique circumstance.
“If this was a position that had to be searched for, there were multiple opportunities for the board to be involved,” said Marsha Ryan, a trustee from 2017 to early 2019. “I’m sure the board would’ve wanted to know. This hiring should have been done in the light of day.”
In August 2017, Dunn changed Kolaz’s title from Director of Legislative Relations to Director of Legislative Relations and Intergovernmental Affairs, and raised his pay to 90 percent of a $175,000 full-time salary, or about $157,488.
Yet although he was over the $150,000-per-year limit requiring board approval, no such approval was sought. Again, documents show Kolaz’s raise never came before the board, including when his position was renewed above the $150,000 limit, in January of 2018.
“We would get no information about raises. It seems to me they would just happen in the quiet of the president’s office,” Ryan said. “A transparent administration would simply let the board know, even without being mandated, who it is that is being hired, for what purpose, and for what salary. That is what [current SIU President] Kevin [Dorsey] has done.”
By the spring of 2018, Ryan had begun to question the function of Kolaz and other employees in President Dunn’s office.
“Nobody was aware of him [Kolaz] or what he did,” Ryan said. “Several trustees requested to see the contracts of employees in the President’s office.”
Meanwhile, SIU leaders were debating the balance of state funding to be distributed to SIU Carbondale versus SIU Edwardsville.
The publication of hundreds of pages of internal emails would later reveal Dunn and Charles consulted with Kolaz on support for controversial legislation proposed by Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, to split SIUC and SIU Edwardsville.
“Anything egregiously wrong here?” Charles asked Kolaz and Dunn, in an April 2018 email with talking points to help Metro East legislators express support for the system split.
The discovery of Dunn’s behind-the-scenes support for the bill, which was never passed, led trustees and state lawmakers from the Carbondale area to call for his resignation, which was submitted last July.
'The right direction'
In March, the university finalized policy updates that seek to bring accountability and transparency to search waiver use at the university.
Under the new rules, any search waiver generated by the president will pass through two levels of scrutiny, where once there was no formal approval process, indicated SIU General Counsel Luke Crater.
Where Dunn was able to create and sign his own search waivers to hire Colwell and Kolaz, any new presidential search waivers must be reviewed and approved by an SIU equal opportunity office and signed by the chair of the board of trustees or a fellow trustee designated as a stand-in.
“The board is going to be aware of search waivers, and it’s going to be transparent,” Gilbert said. “We are turning a corner, and heading in the right direction.”
The extent of Dunn’s punishment is unknown, following the OEIG investigation that found Dunn had improperly hired Melissa Germain, Jeffrey Germain and Brad Colwell.
Within a few weeks of the completion of the OEIG report that found wrongdoing by Dunn, SIU Edwardsville informed, in response to an inquiry by The Southern, that Dunn would no longer assume a $100,000-per-year teaching job that he had been promised as part of his severance agreement from SIU.
SIU representatives have not confirmed whether Dunn’s absence is connected to the OEIG findings. However, Dunn’s severance agreement provided his employment would cease if an external agency found that he had violated university policy or state law, and the OEIG report recommended Dunn not be rehired at Edwardsville.
A call and voicemail message to former SIU President Randy Dunn went unreturned.
Attempts to contact Kolaz at the work phone number he listed in his SIU hiring documents reached his voicemail at Shea, Paige and Rogal, a law firm and lobbyist group. A message left there went unreturned, as did a message left with the company secretary.
John Charles, who serves as spokesperson for SIU President J. Kevin Dorsey, could not confirm whether any investigation has been or will be opened into the hire, and declined to comment on the appropriateness of Kolaz’s hire and salary increase. Charles cited the university’s policy of not commenting on personnel matters of specific employees.