For a long time – decades – a program costing Chicago more than $100 million a year was in the control of one alderman.
Ald. Ed Burke, the former chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee, lost control of the workers’ compensation program after prosecutors accused him of attempted extortion.
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot says that during that time, plenty of damage was done – at a cost to taxpayers.
“When you have no structure and you have no oversight, you’re not using best practices, you’re not managing claims on an electronic basis, of course those kinds of situations are absolutely going to develop,” Lightfoot said. “The system that Ed Burke ran was ripe for corruption.”
It’s not just the mayor’s opinion.
Lightfoot on Thursday made public an audit conducted by the Grant Thornton firm. It found the city’s setup to be antiquated. Workers administering the program didn’t have proper training. There aren’t clear policies to handle claims.
Critics of Burke say it goes beyond simple mismanagement.
One city worker with an outstanding workers’ compensation claim, plumber Patrick McDonough, said that Burke used the system to punish whistleblowers like himself, and to reward political cronies.
Investigating whether there’s any truth to such claims, or suggestions of potential criminal wrongdoing, was not within the audit’s scope. Hundreds of cases are still unresolved, years after initial claims were made.
“I don’t think we know that yet,” Lightfoot said. “But certainly as we look back at legacy claims we’re going to be on the lookout for any kind of fraud or abuse of the program. But it’s a concern. Obviously when you have a program of this magnitude that’s operated in the dark, with no transparency for years, there’s absolutely a concern that decisions are being made on something other than a merit basis.”
Burke did not a return a call to his ward office seeking comment.
Lightfoot also announced Thursday she’s hiring a private company, Gallagher Bassett, to run the program’s day-to-day operations. She says the firm was chosen in a competitive process, but the contract is still being finalized so she didn’t share how much Chicago will pay.
The City Council will maintain oversight.
By professionalizing and modernizing the program responsible for paying claims to city workers, verified to have been injured on the job, Lightfoot says Chicagoans can expect to realize “substantial” savings in the long run.
Lightfoot says cleaning up workers’ comp is part of her plan to clean up City Hall.
She’ll need to prove to residents she’s doing that, given that – as she reiterated Wednesday after her second City Council meeting – she’ll be planning to come to them, in some capacity, to pay more for government services.
“I meant what I said on the course of the campaign. We have a lot of hard choices we’re going to have to make with regard to city finances and there’s no question that we’re going to have to come to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue,” Lightfoot said.
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