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Official Calls For Probe Of Prison’s Workers’ Comp

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CHESTER, Ill. (AP) – The head of Illinois’ workers’ compensation commission is calling for an investigation of nearly $10 million paid out in claims to more than half the staff of a southwestern Illinois prison over the past three years.

The Belleville News-Democrat reported the figures Thursday involving claims paid by state taxpayers to 389 guards and other workers at the maximum-security Menard Correctional Center in Chester, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis.

More than 500 claims filed since January 2008 include one involving a $75,678 payment in June to the prison’s warden, Dave Rednour, according to the newspaper.

A message seeking comment was left with Rednour at the 3,500-prisoner lockup, and he does not have a listed home telephone number. Sharyn Elman, a state Department of Corrections spokeswoman, has said Rednour’s case was a “personnel issue” she could not publicly discuss.

Roughly 290 cases are pending.

When told of the newspaper’s findings, the chairman of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission says he has called for an investigation of the claims. Mitch Weisz said he has asked for a meeting with Illinois Department of Insurance Director Michael McRaith to discuss a possible fraud probe.

“I’m surprised that with all the different agencies that are involved, that it’s taken you guys to bring this to my attention. My eyes are wide open,” Weisz told the newspaper. “It’s hard for me to imagine it’s all kosher.”

But Elman said the Department of Corrections is not involved, noting that “we don’t approve or disprove these claims.” She said she was unaware of any plans to review working conditions at Menard.

More than 230 prison workers contend that their injuries were caused by repetitive actions such as manually locking and unlocking cells. The prison, which opened in 1878, doesn’t have electric locks, meaning workers must use keys and crank a heavy wheel to open a row of cells. The Department of Corrections said installing electronic locks would be too expensive.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is reevaluating all such repetitive-trauma cases to assess their validity and appropriateness for compensation, especially those from Menard and other prison sites, said Madigan spokeswoman Cara Smith, a deputy attorney general.

Smith also said reviews of work conditions at Menard and other prisons were planned to pinpoint if such injuries could be prevented. She said fighting the repetitive-trauma cases could be an “uphill battle.”

It was not immediately clear whether any of the awarded judgments could be rescinded.

Thomas Rich, a Fairview Heights attorney whose office has handled the bulk of the prison’s compensation claims since 2008, said his records show that an overwhelming proportion of repetitive-trauma claims by state workers were approved without opposition. Madigan’s office represents the employer if it is a state agency, in this case the Department of Corrections.

Rich said the approval rate has reversed since the state Legislature held recent hearings on reforming the workers’ compensation law and since the Belleville New-Democrat’s recent articles about repetitive trauma claims from Menard.

Claims settlement records from the commission show that 86 of 98 claims for repetitive trauma filed in 2009 for Menard workers were brought by Rich’s office and were handled by the same lawyer from Madigan’s office, as well as the same state arbitrator or judge.

Data shows that since January 2008, $5.9 million was awarded in settled claims in which a prison employee, typically a guard, reported injury due to repetitive trauma due to working manual locking systems and keys, among other things. An additional $2.2 million was doled out because of accidents and overextension-related injuries, while $1.6 million was paid to workers recuperating from injury, according to the newspaper.

Exact totals for medical bills, which sometimes topped $100,000 for a single repetitive-trauma case where there may have been complications, were unavailable, said Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission spokesman Nick Velazquez.

“This is a scandal that nobody knows about,” said Gene Keefe, whose Chicago law firm specializes in defending employers against workers’ compensation claims.

“If you’re an outsider looking in, you can’t get your arms around this.”

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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