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City’s inspector general takes on Ald. Burke over worker’s comp

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Updated: August 28, 2012 6:14AM

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has already gone toe-to-toe with former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Now, he’s taking on the City Council’s most powerful alderman.

Ferguson went public Thursday with a jurisdictional dispute that’s been simmering in private for weeks: the decision of Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) to deny Ferguson access to databases related to the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program for civilian employees.

Burke’s staff is refusing to release that information on the grounds that: so-called “duty disability” is governed by state law, not city ordinance; that Ferguson’s investigative powers are limited to misconduct; and that the Finance Committee staffers who administer the worker’s comp program fall under the jurisdiction of the City Council’s own inspector general.

In a July 24 letter to Ferguson, Marla Kaiden, chief administrative officer for the Finance Committee, wrote that the IG’s powers are “not a license to review every policy or decision of the mayor and City Council, but rather only matters involving misconduct, inefficiencies or waste by those employees in the performance of their official duties.”

Kaiden added, “This charge to your office goes back to the inception of the Office of Inspector General, but surely is more even more explicit since the creation of the Office of the Legislative IG, who enjoys a parallel jurisdiction with respect to the members and employees of the City Council.”

Ferguson countered that he routinely conducts audits to review city programs, identify waste and inefficiency and recommend ways to prevent it.

The IG then referred to a recent series of Chicago Sun-Times stories that identified waste, abuse and mismanagement in the $45 million-a-year disability program for police officers and firefighters.

“Blocking IGO access is especially egregious in this case, as recent press reports have detailed anecdotal evidence of a city program very much in need of outside review, hopefully leading to improvements and savings to taxpayers,” Ferguson wrote.

The IG noted that top mayoral aides have referred to the Sun-Times revelations as possible “fraud and abuse” and that the mayor himself has accused a “few bad actors” in the Police Department of “taking down” an $18 million-a-year disability system designed to serve as an insurance policy for officers who perform “difficult, life-threatening” jobs.

“The best way to determine whether there is waste, fraud or abuse in this city-funded program administered by the city for the benefit of city workers….. is to subject the program to a thorough IGO review,” Ferguson wrote.

Last year, Emanuel agreed to work together with Burke to wring $15 million in savings out of the city’s $100-a-year million tab for workers compensation.

Five years after a Sun-Times investigation of worker’s comp abuses triggered federal subpoenas, Emanuel agreed to launch a worker safety program to reduce on-the-job injuries. The overhaul included a “safety analysis” of working conditions in every city department to produce specific safety protocols, including Streets and Sanitation, where injured employees are a big reason why one-third of the refuse collection workforce is sidelined every day.

Burke, who has sole authority to process and settle worker’s compensation claims and pick attorneys when claims are challenged, agreed to more aggressively investigate and manage individual cases.

The city and Finance Committee also agreed to work together to bring injured city employees back to work and establish a new protocol for regularly updating the disability status of employees.

For employees who cannot be rehired into a city a city job, the Finance Committee agreed to “engage in vocational rehab.”

It was not known what, if any, savings have been generated by those programs.

A statement issued Thursday on behalf of the Finance Committee said it did not deny Ferguson’s request for records but, instead, asked him to provide a compelling reason why he, and not the legislative inspector general, has jurisdiction over the matter.

“Lacking any adequate response from Mr. Ferguson’s office, the committee remains reticent to make available private medical information relating to named individuals and to set a controversial precedent that weakens the clear division of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government,” the statement said.

In a follow-up interview, Ferguson said Burke’s jurisdictional argument”ignores the plain language” of the ordinance that created the inspector general’s office. “This is a program without oversight,” Ferguson said. “That, in and of itself, renders it a risk factor. It is a program through which $100 million a year passes. High amounts of money constitute a risk factor.

“In an era in which we are trying to find efficiencies to address our long-term structural deficient, any major program like this one should periodically undergo truly independent review to see if it could perform better and prevent possible abuses and waste that have been suggested by recent media reports,” he said.

In 2006, the Sun-Times reported that one of every five patronage workers on the “clout list” kept by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s subsequently convicted former patronage chief filed at least one worker’s compensation claim against the city.

That incredibly high injury rate — which far exceeds any occupation tracked by the U.S. Labor Department — cost taxpayers more than $38 million.

At the time, Daley’s chief of staff pointed the finger of blame at Burke.

Daley responded by moving to put injured employees back to work — and closely monitor those who remain on leave.

Every city department was asked to designate a manager to ride herd over injured employees and ensure that they were seeing doctors, going to rehab and following prescribed treatment.

Monthly status reports were made to the Finance Committee and budget office. The city intensified its efforts to re-assign physically restricted employees to less taxing work. Employees unable to return to work even after reaching the “maximum level of medical improvement” were required to provide proof of “at least 10 job searches-a-week.”

The city’s best efforts apparently fell short, setting the stage for Emanuel and Burke to join forces on yet another crackdown.

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