Attorney general calls for fraud investigation into Menard worker's 'total disability' claim

News-DemocratMarch 2, 2011 

On the same day the state sent Menard Correctional Center Lt. Jay K. Ziegler a temporary "total disability" check for $2,092, he was in his boat on Carlyle Lake helping the Murphysboro High School Red Devils bass fishing team at the state finals in May.

Ziegler, 45, a lieutenant at Menard, was off work after he underwent surgery for repetitive trauma injury to his wrists and elbows. On Jan. 13, he received a tax-free check funded by taxpayers for $76,326 based on his successful claim to the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission.

This payment followed a similar $42,043 settlement he received Dec. 23, 2009, for an injury he stated resulted when he sprained his right shoulder carrying, "food trays up stairs," at the prison.

In just over one year, Ziegler collected $118,369 for injuries while on the job. He also collected a total of $17,397 after being paid temporary total disability during two periods, one in 2009 and the one in 2010, to recover.

In all, he received $135,766 in workers' compensation payments.

"It got so bad I couldn't sleep at night," Ziegler said of his injury. "I didn't want anything except to be able to sleep at night."

Ziegler, the president of the Southern Illinois Bass Club, said he had his doctor's permission to be in his bass boat and on the lake on May 7 and 8 for the tournament, as long as he didn't actually fish.

But Natalie Bauer, spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said that after learning from News-Democrat reporters that Ziegler was on the lake while collecting disability, her office has asked the state Department of Insurance Fraud Unit to investigate.

"This office is referring Mr. Ziegler's two pro se cases to you for any appropriate investigation to determine if any fraud was perpetrated upon the State of Illinois by Mr. Ziegler," stated in a letter to the supervisor of the Illinois Department of Insurance Workers' Compensation Fraud Unit signed by Assistant Attorney General Greg Riddle, bureau chief of the attorney general's Workers' Compensation Bureau.

Ziegler said that after recovering from the accident involving the food trays, he developed pain in his hands and arms that he suspected was because of repetitive trauma. He works at the same prison where more than 230 guards and employees have filed for or received payments for repetitive trauma since Jan. 1, 2008. Most say that handling heavy cell locking mechanisms caused their injuries. Several state investigations of these claims are under way.

Ziegler said it would have been enough to receive corrective surgery paid for by the state. But when the settlement check came in the mail he kept it.

"Did I ask for any of it?" he said referring to the settlements. "No, I didn't. Did I take it? Yeah."

Asked how he could develop repetitive trauma working as a lieutenant in an administrative capacity, Ziegler said, "I help out all day. My men have to keep up with me."

He said that during his shift on Tuesday, he unlocked "21 locks."

A Chicago-based attorney, whose firm represents employers in workers' compensation claims, said temporary total disability, or TTD, means that you do not perform work or strenuous activity.

"When you are on TTD, you can perform no work of any kind on any basis," said Gene Keefe, a lawyer who defends workers' compensation claims. "I have a lot of trouble with guys who do scheduled activities. Why couldn't you be doing the same thing at the prison? It's hogwash."

In the second workers' compensation case, Ziegler settled the claim for repetitive trauma on Sept. 13 for $76,326 -- the day after he placed sixth in the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce Buddy Bass Tournament and split the $175 prize with his fishing buddy. He received his check four months later instead of six months, the usual wait time for most state workers.

Ziegler, who earns an annual salary of $76,684, is one of at least 389 employees at Menard Correctional Center in Chester to file for or receive workers' compensation awards since Jan. 1, 2008. The News-Democrat reported that the state paid nearly $10 million during this time to about 155 guards and prison employees in settled cases including repetitive trauma and other injuries. Most of the cases involved claims of trauma from locking and unlocking cells.

The employer has three options if they suspect fraud, Keefe said.

"They can suspend or fire the employee, take it to the workers' compensation fraud unit for investigation, or sue the employee."

The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission Fraud Unit investigated 23 cases of alleged workers' compensation fraud in 2009, according to their annual report. Twelve of those cases were referred for prosecution, with two resulting in convictions.

Gov. Pat Quinn has appointed Springfield attorney John R. Simpson to oversee a probe of the Menard awards, and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan last week introduced a bi-partisan resolution calling for an audit of the Illinois Workers' Compensation program "as it applies to state employees."

Eight of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission's 32 arbitrators have filed workers' compensation claims. John Dibble, of Freeburg, who heard most of the repetitive trauma cases out of Menard, including Ziegler's cases, received his own repetitive trauma claim for $48,790 last year. Dibble also approved Ziegler's first claim for the shoulder injury.

Ziegler, who filed his claims pro se, or without a lawyer, said Dibble told him prior to the repetitive trauma claim being settled last year, "That I could get more money if I had hired a lawyer. But I wasn't interested."

Dibble and Arbitrator Jennifer Teague were placed on paid administrative leave last month.

As for Ziegler, the day the state sent the May 7 check, fishing wasn't so good at the state finals when he helped out the Murphysboro Red Devil Bassers.

"The wind blew us off our fish," he told a newspaper reporter covering the event. "We were fishing mid-lake. We couldn't get to them. We caught fish all week. It's extremely aggravating."

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570. Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625.

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