Why was guard on disability leave riding in high-powered speedboat?

News-DemocratMay 17, 2014 

When prize-winning fisherman Lance Fancher rode in a high-powered speedboat during an all-day fishing competition on Lake of Egypt in April, he was on disability leave from his job as a Big Muddy River Correctional Center prison guard.

But Fancher said he didn't actually compete in the fishing tournament that requires casting a bass lure hundreds of times in an hour because he is disabled and didn't have a fishing license. Instead, he said, he was providing moral support for a friend who was competing.

Fancher, 43, of DuQuoin about six miles north of the lake, has filed five workers' compensation disability claims since 2008 and is currently off work and receiving full pay. The Belleville News-Democrat reported last month that Fancher is the subject of an investigation by the Illinois Department of Corrections into "possible misconduct," according to a statement from the agency.

This investigation stemmed from an incident on Oct. 13 at Big Muddy where Fancher and other guards were involved in stopping a fight among inmates. Medical personnel who examined Fancher at a private hospital said that an examination and testing did not reveal injury, an agency statement said. Another guard who was injured in the same fight returned to work after a week.

But incident reports obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act contain three accounts from guards that Fancher and the other guard were punched and knocked to the floor.

Copies of two additional reports that were not part of the Freedom of Information request also were obtained by the BND.

A report of an interview with guard Kendra Burgess given 12 days after the inmate fight occurred stated, "I saw fighting and two correctional officers fighting for their lives against multiple inmates."

A report from emergency room physician Dr. Richard Griffin at Good Samaritan Hospital in Mount Vernon on the day of the fight showed that Fancher's right arm was placed in a sling.

Under "prognosis," Griffin wrote, "Good for full recovery in 10 to 14 days. Light duty until Oct. 24, 2013."

Fancher, whose salary is about $66,000, went off work right away. He returned about a week later for three days and has been out ever since. He filed a workers' compensation claim on Dec. 14 stating he had disabling injuries to his, "Head. Neck. Back. Right shoulder. Right knee. Body as a whole," that prevented him from being able to return to work.

Fancher said Friday he was not actually fishing on April 6, but had only accompanied his usual fishing partner Paul Lesaulnier, who had entered the tournament and finished 19th with 12.1 pounds of bass. Fancher said that due to his disability and because his Illinois fishing license had expired a week earlier, he elected not to fish and had permission from the tournament director to simply go along as a passenger.

"I didn't fish," he said, and declined further comment. Lesaulnier declined to comment.

Online results posted by the fishing tournament organizers -- Illini Team Trail -- show both men as having participated in the tournament. In the past, they have won first place prize awards at these events.

Tournament organizer Kelly Garrett said that if two people pay the entry fee and are in one boat on certain lakes including Lake of Egypt, they are allowed to enter five fish. If only one person is in the boat, the limit is three fish. Tournament results show that five fish were entered for 19th place under the listing for Fancher/Lesaulnier.

A valid fishing license is required to participate in the tournament, Garrett stated.

In response to questions from the News-Democrat about the tournament and the fact that Fancher's fishing license expired on March 31, Tom Shaer, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, issued this statement, "The Illinois Department of Corrections considers all facts regarding ongoing physical activity of any employee claiming workplace disability."

Shaer said that his agency supports an independent ongoing review of Fancher's disability claim. A private firm is conducting the review per contract with the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission.

"IDOC never hesitates to require an employee who is either claiming disability or proven to have a disability to return to full-time work at an assignment unaffected by the claimed or proven disability," Shaer's statement said.

"In fact that has been done in the past at the same correctional center where Mr. Fancher is employed."

Corrections Director Salvador Godinez, previously asked to comment about the Fancher situation, has said, "While the Illinois Department of Corrections respects procedures for claims, (the agency has) absolutely zero tolerance for employee misconduct of any type."

So far, Fancher's workers' compensation claims have cost taxpayers at least $135,795 in medical bills, temporary disability pay and a settlement.

Of his five disability claims, four including the latest are outstanding and list injuries to his, "lower extremities, multiple parts -- right knee -- left arm and elbow."

In 2009, Fancher was awarded a tax-free settlement of $29,418 for his successful claim that he lost 20 percent use of his right leg because of an on the job injury.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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