Lawmakers call for review of workers' comp claims by prison guards, arbitrators

News-DemocratFebruary 10, 2011 

Three metro-east lawmakers sponsored a bill Wednesday in the Illinois House directing the auditor general to investigate hundreds of workers' compensation claims by employees at the Menard Correctional Center, as well as claims filed by state arbitrators.

House Bill 52 was introduced by state Reps. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville; Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon; Dan Reitz, D-Steeleville, and others.

"We need an independent auditor to look at these things to restore confidence in the system," Holbrook said.

The action came after the Belleville News-Democrat reported Tuesday that an arbitrator for the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, Jennifer Teague, of Shiloh, attempted to keep secret a public hearing for former Illinois State Trooper Matt Mitchell, who filed a workers' comp claim for injuries he received in a high-speed head-on collision that killed two Collinsville sisters in 2007.

Teague, the arbitrator assigned to the Mitchell case, changed the hearing time and place without public notice because she wanted to hold it "on the sly with no press," according to copies of Teague's e-mails obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

"That a workers' comp arbitrator tried to hide a hearing by e-mailing it should be 'on the sly with no press' is illegal and outrageous," said State Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Westmont, a member of the Senate Workers' Compensation Reform Committee.

Dillard said Wednesday that an investigation should be launched into Teague's conduct and former assistant attorney general Bill Schneider's alleged failure to warn his supervisors about the efforts to keep Mitchell's hearing secret.

Neither Teague nor Schneider could be reached for comment.

The News-Democrat has reported the state paid nearly $10 million in workers' compensation awards to 389 employees at the Menard Correction Center in Chester, including more than 230 guards who claimed they suffered from repetitive trauma after locking and unlocking cells.

Kay said, "the issue at Menard and the way it has been handled with employees receiving benefits under suspect circumstances begs the question, 'Why wasn't anyone interested?' Somebody needs to find the truth."

The newspaper has also reported that eight of the state's 32 arbitrators have filed for or received workers' comp awards, including Teague and John Dibble, of Freeburg, who received $48,790 for injuries suffered in a fall. Dibble's claim was settled through the mail without appearing before an arbitrator. Teague's claim for repetitive trauma is pending.

Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, called the current workers' compensation system a "serious injustice to the taxpayers."

"The investigation needs to start sooner than later," said McCarter, urging a review of the Mitchell case.

"Reassignments aren't enough," McCarter said. "Chairman (Mitch) Weisz (of the Workers' Compensation Commission) needs to take definitive action."

Weisz said Wednesday he would take no action until the matter involving Teague is fully investigated. Teague continued to hear cases on Wednesday, Weisz said, and is still set to decide whether Mitchell will receive a workers' compensation award.

Teague wrote in an e-mail in December to Weisz that she was uncomfortable with the Mitchell workers' compensation case and the media interest surrounding it. She wrote she would write the opinion in Mitchell's case with care because the media attention is "overwhelming."

"As far as the arbitrator being uncomfortable and overwhelmed by a 'media frenzy,' she should have recused herself instead of hiding the hearing," said Kimberly Schlau, the mother of Jessica and Kelli Uhl, who were killed in the accident. "(Their) families never had the choice to avoid the 'media frenzy,' and our hearing dates were always publicized."

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