By Stacy St. Clair, Jodi S. Cohen and Christy Gutowski
A former College of DuPage employee has been charged with stealing from the campus radio station in a scheme similar to one he pulled off four years ago at another local college.
Retired radio engineer John Valenta was arrested Thursday after being charged with stealing more than $200,000 from WDCB-FM 90.9, a professionally run jazz station largely supported by tax dollars and listener donations.
Authorities allege that while working at the station, Valenta, 65, submitted phony invoices from his side business between June 2006 and December 2013 for materials the school never received and work he never performed. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
College of DuPage was flagged about radio station 10 years before inquiry
"The allegations in this case clearly illustrate the concept of simple greed," DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin said in a statement. "The defendant had a good job for more than two decades before he allegedly decided to illegally supplement his income at the expense of the College of DuPage."
Valenta’s arrest came hours after a front-page Tribune report that Valenta billed the Glen Ellyn-based community college for more than $400,000 from his private company, Broadcast Technologies — including at least $90,000 for radio transmitter parts that were never installed, according to school records. He repeatedly cited power failures as the reason for much of the repair work, but ComEd tests never detected a problem, documents show.
Valenta retired from the station last February, shortly before the college’s auditor issued a scathing internal report accusing the radio engineer of violating school policies by personally approving fake invoices. The auditor also questioned whether Valenta deserved much of his overtime pay.
Valenta, who was making $74,000 a year when he retired, currently receives about $51,000 a year from the state pension system.
During a brief court hearing Thursday, Valenta said he wasn’t sure whether he could post his $400,000 bond. He agreed he would stay off College of DuPage property as a condition of his release.
His attorney, Brad Telander, was not in court and did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement released shortly before the hearing, College of DuPage officials said outside auditors have declared both the college and radio station to be financially sound. President Robert Breuder also said the college provided prosecutors with the "appropriate information" and cooperated with the investigation.
At least one college trustee, however, questioned the financial oversight at the school given that the alleged theft took place over seven years. The college does not keep detailed financial records longer than seven years, so officials have said it’s impossible to review all invoices submitted by Valenta during his three decades at the station. However, records show the campus auditor asked questions about the use of Broadcast Technologies in 2003.
"As vice chairman of the board, I am concerned that these alleged fraudulent activities occurred over a long period of time and were not detected," said Trustee Katharine Hamilton, who asked the board chair a year ago to conduct an independent review of the station’s finances.
The charge against Valenta is the latest in a series of controversies at the publicly funded community college, the largest in the state. The school most recently has been under fire from taxpayers and lawmakers over a $763,000 retirement package awarded last month to Breuder, who has been criticized for his management style and spending.
If the former president stole that kind of money nothing at all would have happened. He'd likely have gotten an even bigger severance package!
The Tribune first reported in January that WDCB continued to employ Valenta — and pay bills submitted by his business — for nearly two years after he was convicted of a felony for using that same business to steal from Elmhurst College. He pleaded guilty in 2013 and was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $11,270 in restitution — the amount of the purchases he admitted fabricating, according to court records.
College of DuPage officials have said they were unaware of Valenta’s conviction and did not know he owned Broadcast Technologies until December 2013. However, Elmhurst College security officers said they notified the Glen Ellyn campus about the charges in 2011.
The college has hired a law firm to investigate if anyone on campus knew about the criminal charges against Valenta. The review has not been completed.
Prosecutors had access to Elmhurst police reports that noted Valenta also worked at the College of DuPage. It’s unclear, however, how quickly they looked into his business dealings there as the college has repeatedly stated that it "uncovered a possible case of fraud" in December 2013 and immediately reported it to law enforcement.
In the three years between his Elmhurst arrest and his WDCB retirement, records show Valenta billed the radio station for more than $100,000 in purchases from Broadcast Technologies.
The highest cumulative billing came during fiscal year 2013, with about $81,000 in payments. Many of the invoices are initialed by Valenta himself, next to the statement "OK to Pay," according to copies of the invoices obtained from the college under the Freedom of Information Act.
However, earlier this year, the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office and college officials fought to keep those documents secret from the public. Prosecutors even went so far as to obtain a sealed court order to prevent the Tribune from obtaining information about Valenta’s employment and business dealings with the school.
After the Tribune successfully challenged the move in court, the college released some of the documents, including dozens of Broadcast Technologies invoices.
Valenta also averaged about 14 hours of overtime per week for the last two years he was employed, records show. He frequently cited the transmitter’s mechanical problems as the reason for his extra hours, according to the 2014 audit. In one month in 2013, for example, records show he claimed 85 hours of overtime and was paid an extra $4,400.
"Given that the consultant stated that there has been no significant transmitter problems which required extensive replacement parts ... it seems unlikely that all of the overtime hours claimed were necessary and it is possible they were never worked," the audit said.