Did prison guards scam us? Investigation identifies top 10 offenders

News-DemocratMay 24, 2014 

A three-year-old combined state and federal investigation to determine if Illinois prison guards scammed taxpayers through phony workers' compensation claims produced tantalizing leads.

Suspects were identified. Information was developed that physicians who approved the awards and lawyers who represented guards may have provided false information. Awards were given even though testing showed no injury, according to state payment records.

But more than three years after it began, the criminal probe by the Department of Insurance, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District and the Department of Justice has not resulted in arrests or a final report.

The investigation was in response to a series of articles in the Belleville News-Democrat that began in December 2010 concerning more than 250 claims over a three-year period, mostly by corrections officers at the Menard Correctional Center, who stated they incurred repetitive trauma injuries by turning keys and operating locking mechanisms. More than $10 million was paid out in individual tax-free settlements ranging from $20,000 to $80,000 following minor hand or elbow surgery. Claimants returned to their jobs.

In April 2012, the state Office of Auditor General listed total costs due to disability claims at the prison over four years at $30 million, which included medical costs.

Copies of records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act of payments to the Chicago law firm of Sorling, Northrup, Hanna, Cullen and Cochran Ltd., describing about $190,000 in investigative legal services, showed that in 2011:

* The firm was asked to, "Identify (the) top 10 offenders for FBI investigation." The names of these persons were not released.

* A review was made of applicants who had negative electronic test results for injury but still had surgery and received awards. Again, names were not listed.

* A prosecution "target list" was prepared and reviewed "regarding (the) statute of limitations." The list was not in the records.

* A prominent St. Louis orthopedic surgeon was hired as a consultant. He examined numerous medical records, "and raised two new lines of inquiry that the U.S. Department of Justice and the WCFU (state Workers' Compensation Fraud Unit) are pursuing with regard to possible medical misrepresentations made by doctors and counsel." The invoice noted that the surgeon, "would be an excellent witness."

The state insurance department refused to provide records from the investigation beyond the invoices to the law firm.

In a letter to the BND, the agency stated, "The investigation has not yet come to a final resolution. As a result, the department considers this an open investigation. Disclosure of these records at the present time could negatively impact a resolution or the ultimate conclusion of this investigation."

State Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, said he strongly suspects that the investigation is actually over and will go nowhere.

"They told me last July they've washed their hands of this," Kay said of his contact with the state Department of Insurance. He said he was told the state material was turned over to the U.S. attorney's office in Fairview Heights. U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton could not be reached for comment.

"The reason they did that is it's an embarrassment to state government," said Kay, concerning disability awards paid primarily for carpal tunnel syndrome of the hand, including a $75,678 settlement for Dave Rednour, then the warden of Menard.

"They said they turned it over to the U.S. attorney. I am going to find out what they intend to do with it," Kay said Friday.

Insurance department spokeswoman Kimberly Parker was asked in writing whether the top 10 offenders identified for the FBI are still working in state government and if the agency would provide the Chicago's law firm's "final report" described in the invoices. She also was asked to comment about concern that the statute of limitations for criminal charges may have expired and whether the department's investigation was actually still in progress.

"Workers' compensation fraud is a crime," she said in a two-sentence emailed response.

"The department will exercise its investigative authority when necessary, and assist law enforcement as needed."

In July 2012, Parker said, "The investigation continues and remains a priority."

On Friday, a spokesman at the governor's office, who said he would try to get clearance to provide a comment about the investigation by the close of business, failed to do so and could not later be reached.

In June 2012, as the Chicago law firm's one-year contract for legal services was about to expire, attorney John R. Simpson wrote to the insurance department, "During May, we met with (Department of Justice) staff and prepared a number of reports for them." In one of his last messages to the state, Simpson wrote that all the firm's data had been placed "in a searchable database" for investigators.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com and 618-239-2570.

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