State agency fights release of workers’ compensation claims

A state agency has hired a prestigious Chicago law firm at taxpayers’ expense to assist in its appeal of an attorney general’s order to release information related to millions of dollars in settlements paid to Menard prison guards for injuries they say were caused by operating heavy cell locking mechanisms.

The state Central Management Services, which processes Illinois’ Workers’ Compensation claims, filed suit Monday in Cook County Circuit Court seeking to deny a request for the records from the Belleville News-Democrat, contending the agency is an insurance pool and therefore allowed to withhold the information as proprietary.

Also on Monday, state Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, introduced House Resolution 405 in an effort to get the legislature to order CMS to turn over the records.

“CMS is not authorized to play by its own rules and make their own laws as they so choose,” Kay said. “This is all monkey business. This is simply foot-dragging and they are trying to say it is OK.”

The medical information, which the Illinois attorney general’s office has ordered released, consists of 50 nerve-conduction velocity tests with all personal identifiers removed and randomly selected from a pool of more than 200 such specialized exams. The tests are a keystone of workers’ compensation claims and settlements for repetitive trauma made by about 230 Menard prison guards and other employees since Jan. 1, 2008. The settlements, ranging from about $20,000 to $150,000, are paid by taxpayers.

Monday was the deadline for CMS to release the records to the public.

Attorneys from the private law firm Holland and Knight were hired as special assistant attorneys general to represent CMS, said spokeswoman Alka Nayyar. They filed a 31-page request for an administrative review.

In the appeal, the Holland and Knight lawyers will face off against assistant attorneys general who work for the Public Access Counselor’s Office created by Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

The Chicago firm’s request stated that the decision by the Public Access Counselor’s Office to order the release of the tests “is against the manifest weight of evidence and is unsupported by law.”

The law firm has offices around the world, including New York, Washington, D.C., Beijing and Mexico City.

The CMS argument also stated that the Public Access Counselor’s Office missed a deadline when requesting a 21-day extension to acquire more data because it failed to state 21 business days. That meant, according to the Chicago firm’s argument, that by the time the News-Democrat received written notice from the attorney general that it should get the records, the filing deadline had already been expired by eight days.

“Due to the attorney general’s failure to issue her opinion on or before April 11, 2011, the … opinion is not binding upon the department,” the court document stated.

The attorney general will be given time to respond.

Following reporting by the News-Democrat that nearly $10 million has been paid to 389 Menard employees, mostly guards, for various workers’ comp claims since 2008, five investigations were launched. They are:

* A federal grand jury investigation in Springfield.

* A criminal investigation by the state Department of Insurance.

* A special probe ordered by Gov. Pat Quinn.

* A procedural audit of the workers’ compensation system for state employees, including its operation at CMS pushed by House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago.

* An investigation by the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

In addition, two state arbitrators — Jennifer Teague, of Shiloh, and John Dibble, of Freeburg — remain on paid administrative leave. Teague, according to emails obtained by the News-Democrat, attempted to conceal a hearing from the public regarding former Illinois State Trooper Matt Mitchell and to speed up a hearing on her own workers’ comp claim.

Dibble was the subject of a story about his claim for delayed onset carpal tunnel syndrome he said was brought on by a fall on the steps of a workers’ compensation hearing office in Herrin. He received $48,790.

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