Monday, April 4, 2011

Feds open wide-scale probe into state workers compensation claims

BY DAVE MCKINNEY Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief

SPRINGFIELD — Federal investigators have opened a wide-scale criminal probe into the way state government compensates its injured workers, targeting three state arbitrators and a rash of claims at a downstate prison and in seven different state agencies.

Federal prosecutors in Springfield and Fairview Heights in southwestern Illinois issued subpoenas in February seeking records on workers’ compensation claims filed since Jan. 1, 2006 by scores of government employees.

The subpoenas obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show an emphasis on claims filed by workers at the Menard Correctional Center, where the Belleville News-Democrat has reported more than $10 million has been paid to 389 prison employees since 2008, including the prison’s warden.

That total included more than 230 guards who have claimed they developed repetitive-stress injuries caused ostensibly by manually locking and unlocking prisoner cell doors, the downstate newspaper reported.

“This is not common,” Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sharyn Elman said of the volume of on-the-job injury claims coming from Menard, one of Illinois’ oldest prisons. “We haven’t seen anything like that in our other prisons, and we have prisons almost as old as Menard.”

Appearing in Belleville Thursday, Gov. Quinn praised the fact law-enforcement was investigating the state’s workers’ compensation system, which the governor said he wants to overhaul this spring.

“We want to make sure everything is done right when it comes to workman’s compensation,’’ Quinn said. “Those who are injured we want to make sure get fair compensation. At the same time, if there’s any fraud, if there’s any abuse, if there’s any monkey business, if there’s any wrongdoing, it’s got to be prosecuted.’’

The subpoenas were received by the Department of Corrections, the Department of Central Management Services, the Department of Insurance and the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission.

A spokeswoman for the Workers’ Compensation Commission, which issues taxpayer-funded awards to injured government workers, declined comment about the subpoenas.

A Feb. 14 subpoena issued to CMS also sought records that “in any way” deal with workers compensation claims filed since 2006, by employees at the Department of Human Services, Central Management Services, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the State Board of Education, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Department of Health Care and Family Services and the Office of the Executive Inspector General.

That same subpoena sought e-mails, personnel records and reimbursement documents dating back to 2006 for two Workers’ Compensation Commission arbitrators, Jennifer Teague and John Dibble, who were placed on paid administrative leave from their $115,836-a-year jobs with no public explanation on Feb. 15, one day after the subpoenas hit.

Similar records were requested for a third arbitrator, Andrew Nalefski, who remains on the job; CMS employee Susan J. LeMasters and former Illinois attorney general’s office employee Bill Schneider, who handled workers compensation cases on behalf of Lisa Madigan’s office but left the attorney general’s payroll in December.

Workers’ Compensation Commission spokeswoman Alka Nayyar said Teague and Dibble handled some of the claims coming out of Menard but declined further comment on their status, citing an ongoing Department of Insurance probe into the situation at Menard.

Messages left at Teague’s home and with her St. Louis attorney were not returned. Dibble could not be reached. Messages left for Nalefski, LeMasters and Schneider were not returned.

In an unusual twist, Teague and Dibble, who ruled on the legitimacy and size of workers’ compensation claims, had their own workers’ compensation claims. Teague’s case seeking compensation for cubital tunnel injury on her right arm last April is still pending, while Dibble received a tax-free $48,790 settlement last June for on-the-job hand injuries, records show.

In October, Madigan’s office submitted a complaint against Teague to the state Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission for allegedly trying to get her own workers’ compensation claim settled in exchange for speeding up a hearing on a complicated and delayed case in which the attorney general’s office was representing the state.

Teague broached that trade-off because she said she was “really cash-strapped right now and has two mortgages” and wanted a settlement sooner, the complaint alleged.

Madigan’s office also accused Teague of using a lawyer in her own case who worked on other claims on her docket of workers’ compensation cases in Mount Vernon or Belleville.

In a February follow-up complaint spurred by reporting by the News-Democrat, Teague also was accused of attempting to conceal a public hearing and minimize press coverage over a workers’ compensation claim sought by former Illinois State Trooper Matt Mitchell.

In late November 2007, Mitchell was driving his squad car at 126 mph on a southwestern Illinois interstate when he lost control of his cruiser and struck an oncoming car carrying two teenage sisters from downstate Collinsville, killing both of them.

Teague ultimately denied his attempt to be compensated for crash injuries to his legs, but Mitchell has appealed that ruling. He resigned from the Illinois State Police last year after pleading guilty to two counts of reckless homicide and being sentenced to 30 months of probation.

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