Northern Kentucky University changes the rules to keep another theft scandal from happening again

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Northern Kentucky University's former athletic director got away with stealing $311,000 during a six-year spree.

Scott Eaton agreed to a 10-year sentence Thursday and to repay all the money he admitted to stealing under terms of a plea deal that Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway announced on campus. President Geoffrey Mearns expressed confidence in an interview with WCPO that a host of reforms now in place will safeguard the university against another scandal like this one.

Reforms offer faculty and staff a carrot and a stick, establishing a confidential hotline for whistleblowing and other means to report wrongdoing without the whistleblower being punished. But witnesses to wrongdoing are now explicitly warned that they are subject to discipline if they're silent about suspected misconduct.

"I think we have created the mechanisms to provide that sense of confidentiality," Mearns said. "Of course, any time you are trying to change the culture it's a multiple step process. We consider it the first but important step, but we have to continue to reinforce the message that the university expects compliance."

NKU hired the Dinsmore & Shohl law firm and Clark Schaefer Hackett auditors to analyze what went wrong to allow the long-term theft to occur and to recommend changes to prevent malfeasance in the future. When the consultants laid out their recommendations last September, Mearns and NKU quickly agreed to nearly every one.

"We either have or are in the process of completing all of the recommendations," Mearns said. "I'm pleased with the progress."

Eaton's sentencing is scheduled for May 20 in Campbell County circuit court. The 10-year sentence is the maximum penalty for the charge of Theft by Unlawful Taking. Conway said his office could have charged Eaton with a more serious felony  subject to 10-20 years in prison, offering Eaton incentive to agree to the 10-year deal.

"At a time when higher education institutions are being asked to accomplish more with smaller tuition increases and declining state funding, the reckless behavior exhibited by Scott Eaton is unconscionable," Conway said at the press conference, held in a conference room in NKU's soccer stadium.

Investigators concluded that Eaton defrauded NKU by using his university credit card to buy $262,106 in Kroger gift cards for personal use. He bought another $32,919 worth of items using his credit card and kept $16,190 in reimbursements for postage.

A host of reforms is now in place or in the works to prevent future abuse or to at least cut it short much more quickly through empowering faculty and staff to confidentially report suspected misdeeds.

Given Eaton's extensive theft by credit card, NKU has eliminated or restricted the use of 75 cards. The card vendor offers tools to monitor use of the cards, and the comptroller and auditors will be charged with using those tools.

NKU's board of regents approved a new code of conduct in March that:

  • Includes a provision for faculty and staff to receive advice about possible violations
  • A confidential means to report wrongdoing
  • States that all faculty and staff are obligated to report violations and subjects witness to discipline should they keep silent.

A new compliance website that will provide faculty staff and students information about compliance and reporting is under development, another recommendation honored by the university. 

Mearns and other top leaders have already signed a pledge to honor the code of conduct and will be evaluated annually on their compliance, and lower level administrators will soon be required to follow suit. New hires will receive an orientation emphasizing the need for compliance with the code as well as their obligation to report wrongdoing.

For the first time, NKU has created a standalone compliance officer position to ensure that policies are being implemented. Mearns said that change was already being considered before Eaton's misdeeds came to light but that the scandal expedited the process.

In light of auditors' finding that colleagues and subordinates to Eaton did nothing wrong but might have been able to detect his wrongdoing, Mearns said a thrust of reforms was vigilance. "I don't know whether there was apprehension, but we want to create a culture that it's their responsibility (to blow the whistle)," he said.  

Erik Pederson, president of the NKU Student Government Association, declined to comment on the effectiveness of the policy reforms, saying that he could not comment without Mearns' permission. Faculty Senate President Steven Weiss said the reforms have not been discussed by the senate and that he was not familiar with them.  

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