Nineteen months and counting.
That's how long the Illinois Department of Insurance fraud unit, aided by a Springfield law firm paid $177,000 so far by taxpayers, has been investigating millions of dollars in workers' compensation lump-sum partial-disability payments awarded to hundreds of guards from a single Illinois prison over a three-year span. Nearly all of these claimants cashed tax-free lump sum checks typically ranging from $20,000 to $80,000 and returned to work full-time.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn said Friday that the probe, which began in early January 2011, "continues to be a top priority."
However, state officials will not discuss details other than payments to the law firm -- Sorling, Northrup, Hanna, Cullen & Cochran, Ltd. -- which is paid $175 per hour for this work. There is no new contract on file for the firm for the 2013 fiscal year, according to state comptroller's office records.
Because of the time the investigation has taken so far, State Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, said he remains skeptical that it will produce results. Kay pushed for reform of the state's workers' compensation law after an ongoing series of investigative articles in the Belleville News-Democrat, which began in December 2010, concerning claims by guards from the Menard Correctional Center.
"My guess is this: I would bet you nothing has been done," Kay said Friday concerning the probe.
"This isn't foot-dragging. This is, call it what you will, but a good legal term would probably be malfeasance."
Department of Insurance spokeswoman Kimberly Parker said this is the first time the department has investigated another state agency for fraud.
"I have nothing new to report at this time. The investigation continues and remains a priority," Parker said Thursday.
Kay noted that the Office of Auditor General William Holland finished its highly critical and comprehensive audit of workers compensation claims by state workers in April after about 15 months. The report concerns problems in the program over four years and singles out claims from the Menard prison; listing 869 claims and payouts of $30 million including medical bills. The BND did not gain access to medical bills for its reporting.
Kay, who said he was pleased with the audit, agreed that when compared to famous investigations that have gained national prominence, the state's insurance fraud unit's inquiry, which the department has described as a criminal probe, has taken a long time.
* The famed 888-page final report of the Warren Commission's probe into the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 was completed in 10 months.
* The Senate investigation of the Watergate burglaries and cover-up produced a 1,250 page report on June 27, 1974 after an effort of nearly 13 months.
* The investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and his law firm into sexual abuse of minors by Penn State former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky took about eight months to produce a 267-page report released July 12.
Public concern about the workers' compensation payouts emanating from Menard escalated after the BND reported that about 230 claims of injury filed mostly by guards who claimed repetitive stress injury from using keys and pulling on cell locking levers generated more than $10 million in claims. The money was paid from public funds because Illinois state government is self-insured.
In nearly every case, the claimed injury was the same: carpal tunnel syndrome of the wrist sometimes combined with cubital tunnel syndrome of the elbow allegedly caused by repeated stress from operating cell locking mechanisms. A single lawyer, attorneyTom Rich of Fairview Heights handled nearly half of the claims. He could not be reached for comment but in the past has stated that all of his clients were injured and wanted only to be healed and return to their job.
The $10 million paid to guards from the Menard Correctional Center was for claims between 2008 and 2011. The payouts were made despite ergonomic surveys made at the prison that stated that turning keys and operating locking mechanisms did not cause injury.
Kay said he thought that Department of Insurance investigators should have been aided in their investigation by a remark in April made by Illinois Department of Corrections Director Tony Godinez during a house budget appropriations committee session.
Kay had asked Godinez why there were so many claims from Menard. Godinez answered, "I think there's fraud ... I'm sorry to say that but I've been working in this business a long time and was (warden) at Stateville (prison) for 12 very hard years and I never saw claims like I've seen since I've been back."
Godinez went on to say that he doubted that guards at Menard were using keys or operating locking mechanisms at an intense level because, "You're not using them (keys) that much at a maximum security facility," because of the high number of lockdown days when inmates stay in their cells.
There also has been a federal investigation into the worker compensation claims at Menard. But Steve Wigginton, U.S. attorney for the southern district of Illinois, said Monday: "The Department of Justice's policy prohibits me from commenting on the existence of any investigation."
Kay said he has no information on the federal investigation.
One state arbitrator for worker's compensation cases, Jennifer Teague of Shiloh, who changed her name to Jennifer Carril, resigned after the newspaper series. She was accused of trying to use her office to expedite her own workers' comp claim and sent inappropriate emails to attorneys involved in cases before her without notifying the attorney from the other side.