Progressive aldermen move to strip Burke of $100M-a-year worker’s comp program

Progressive aldermen moved Wednesday to strip the Finance Committee chaired by Ald. Edward Burke (14th) of control over Chicago’s $100 million-a-year worker’s compensation program.

The move by Ald. John Arena (45th) and his Progressive Caucus colleagues comes nearly two weeks after the unprecedented federal raid on Burke’s ward and City Hall offices.

Sources have told the Chicago Sun-Times that the federal raid had nothing to do with the worker’s compensation program that has been walled off from any scrutiny by Inspector General Joe Ferguson, even after Ferguson was empowered to investigate the City Council.

Nor was it tied to the property tax appeals work that Burke’s law firm has done for the riverfront tower that bears the name of President Donald Trump.

But that didn’t stop Arena and colleagues from pouncing on the politically-weakened Burke.

Arena said it’s a matter of “accountability and transparency” at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing for a constitutional amendment to help solve a $1 billion spike in pension payments that will confront his successor.

“At the same time the mayor is going to suggest that we reduce benefits for our senior citizens and city workers, we have a program that is at $100 million year-over-year where other municipalities are in the range of $20 million. And we have no clear view of how this program is administered,” Arena told the Sun-Times Wednesday.

“This is a move to make sure this is an efficient program and, if people deserve the benefits, they get the benefits. But without audit review, we can’t know that. We asked for this a couple years back when we wanted the inspector general to have review of all committees. That would have made this work. The administration hasn’t acted to reform this, so we’re taking action to reform this.”

Arena isn’t the first to suggest the worker’s compensation transfer. Last week, mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, a longtime Burke nemesis, demanded the same.

“There’s too much money that flows through that system that is completely opaque. We have no idea how those monies are spent, who the people are who are making the decisions. That’s got to end,” Lightfoot said then.

“Now is the time to make sure the executive branch actually owns responsibility for this important human resources function and takes it from the legislative branch where it never should have been in the first place.”

In 2006, a Sun-Times investigation exposed such abuses as allowing patronage workers to file for injury claims at a higher rate than any occupation tracked by the Labor Department — including the most dangerous ones — and paying workers comp benefits to people who held outside jobs. The highest rates of injuries coincided with the names of people who had the most clout.

Three years earlier, the Sun-Times ran a series of similar stories, including one about the city forking over $136,036 to a Streets and Sanitation worker who beat up his daughter’s boyfriend while out on disability for an injured hand.

In 2016, whistleblowers again called the workers comp program a cesspool of patronage and favoritism. Still, Burke persuaded his City Council colleagues to block Ferguson from auditing the program.

In a lawsuit filed in July, Jay Stone, a son of former Ald. Bernie Stone, accused Burke of exploiting the workers comp program to award jobs to precinct workers who deliver votes for his handpicked candidates. Stone also accused Burke of cutting disability checks as favors to political pals, such as to a precinct captain of a fellow alderman.

Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle is also on record as supporting the worker’s compensation shift — even though Burke held a recent fundraiser for her re-election campaign as county board president.

In county government, worker’s comp cases are handled by a division of the state’s attorney’s office, with regular reports to a committee of the County Board.

Emanuel privately blamed Burke for being the heavy hand behind the residency challenge that nearly knocked him off the 2011 ballot. He even threatened to remove Burke as Finance chairman and strip him of his taxpayer-supported bodyguard detail.

But after the election, Emanuel reached a political accommodation with Burke not unlike the chairman’s uneasy alliance with former Mayor Richard M. Daley, a life-long rival.

Burke remained Finance chairman. And the worker’s compensation program remained in his iron-fisted control.

Asked Wednesday whether the responsibility should remain there, Emanuel said, “I don’t really care where worker’s comp sits. If you look at my budget, you’ll realize we realized $20 million of savings.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) countered, “With a big program like that, transparency is always in the best interest of the taxpayer. It’s not a transparent process right now.”

When the ordinance was introduced, progressive aldermen called for it to be assigned to the Budget Committee. Budget chairman Carrie Austin (34th) called the Workforce Development Committee. So, it went to the Rules Committee, the place where controversial legislation goes to die.

This article was first published by The Chicago Sun-Times.

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