The University of Illinois is investigating potential conflicts of interest involving the director of the school's prestigious police-training institute and Blackwater U.S.A., the military contractor.
The institute's director, Tom Dempsey, signed an agreement in May allowing the state facility and private contractor to exchange staff and students and share facilities. The pact could give Blackwater a foothold in training candidates for sworn law-enforcement positions in Illinois.
Even as he represented the institute, Dempsey has also been working as a Blackwater consultant in his spare time, top university officials confirmed Monday in response to questions from the Tribune. On July 19, two months after Dempsey signed the institute's partnership agreement with Blackwater, he submitted a written request for time off to consult for Blackwater.
University administrators who were unaware of the partnership agreement agreed to the 30-day leave of absence, which Dempsey requested so he could travel to Afghanistan to work for the North Carolina-based company in anti-drug-trafficking and police training of Afghan forces, according to university provost Linda Katehi.
Dempsey, 58, a former Marine and director of the institute since 2002, did not respond to several Tribune requests for comment last week and Monday. He is paid $118,178 annually by the university.
Sources at the university, who believe Dempsey is currently in Afghanistan, said he has corresponded with the university by e-mail in recent days. Officials plan to speak with him by phone this week about the potential conflict of interest.
The university's conflict policy requires employees to disclose whether, through an outside venture, they are receiving $10,000 or more from a company doing business with the university.
Katehi said that in most cases, if an individual notes a potential conflict on disclosure forms, those forms are not accepted without a thorough investigation.
She said the university is now trying to find out whether Dempsey was employed by Blackwater when he signed the partnership, and why any work he is doing for Blackwater is not spelled out in the partnership agreement.
The probe comes as Blackwater, a security firm whose most-publicized business is providing private paramilitary personnel for America's war on terror, is already facing controversy surrounding a training facility opened last spring in far northwestern Illinois.
The university's institute, located in Champaign, is one of the largest in the nation. It trains would-be law-enforcement and corrections officers.
By aligning with the institute, Blackwater could then receive approval from the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board to become part of the primary training process for law enforcement, state officials said, possibly opening up future contracts for Blackwater. Only five facilities in Illinois are fully certified by the board to train candidates for sworn law-enforcement positions.
Board officials said they have not received an application from Blackwater to align with the university.
Now university officials say they will evaluate whether it is appropriate for the state's largest and most visible education facility to be aligned with Blackwater.
"We are trying to reconsider that and get more information about what their intention was and to make sure there is an alignment between the mission of Blackwater and the mission of the campus," Katehi said. "We don't want our name associated with a firm that is controversial."
A Blackwater spokeswoman said it is against company policy to discuss employees in sensitive positions overseas. She said the university agreement, however, involves only domestic law-enforcement training and not military support efforts.
The agreement does not call for money to change hands, according to a copy obtained by the Tribune. Cooperation would be developed "as deemed beneficial by the two parties."
"It's an exchange of services," said Anne Tyrrell, the Blackwater spokeswoman.
Thus far, Blackwater has not been involved in training at the institute, according to Blackwater and university officials. How the two organizations would work together is unclear.
Formed in 1997, Blackwater tumbled into the American consciousness when four of its workers were killed and their bodies mutilated in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
In addition to Blackwater's sprawling 7,000-acre North Carolina campus, used for paramilitary and law-enforcement training, Blackwater North in Mt. Carroll, Ill., has trained some 200 people from 40 law-enforcement agencies from as far away as New York and California, company officials said.
Since opening last spring 150 miles west of Chicago, Blackwater North has endured criticism and questions regarding its operation from neighbors and peace groups protesting "America's private army."
It is unlikely that any of the training ventures with the university would take place at Blackwater North, Tyrrell said.
- 23 Private Security
- 124 War & Disaster Profiteering