Lawsuit seeks to end Burke’s ‘political army’ in Chicago workers’ comp system
Chicago’s longest-serving alderman runs the city’s workers’ comp program without any outside scrutiny. But a new lawsuit aims to change that.
In Chicago city government, workers’ compensation is not administrative – it’s political. Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, runs the $100 million-a-year program out of a City Council committee.
But a lawsuit filed July 30 seeks to bring this old Chicago oddity – and its capacity for abuse – to an end.
Former water department employee Patrick McDonough and activist Jay Stone brought the suit against the city, which argues that running a workers’ comp program out of the city’s legislative body violates the separation of powers outlined in both the Illinois and U.S. Constitution.
Nearly three months after Chicago City Council shuttered its own oversight office in 2015, aldermen moved to transfer that office’s watchdog powers to the Chicago Office of the Inspector General, or OIG. But before passing the new oversight ordinance, Burke reportedly “aggressively trad[ed] favors for support of a watered-down” version, which established black boxes in City Council that the OIG was not allowed to investigate.
The weakened ordinance prohibited the OIG from auditing the city’s workers’ comp program, which Burke runs out of the Committee on Finance, where he serves as chairman. In 2012, Burke refused to let the OIG look into his handling of the program.
The revised oversight ordinance also barred the OIG from looking into aldermen’s largest source of discretionary spending – their $1.3 million-per-year expense accounts, otherwise known as their “menu money.” Examples of past menu-money misuse uncovered by the Chicago Tribune include spending on luxury vehicles, downtown parking and patronage hiring.
The plaintiffs allege Burke has hired “political appointees who lacked the requisite workers’ compensation education and experience … [including] a dog groomer, dog walker, hairstylist, waitress, and other jobs unrelated to the administration of Workers’ Compensation.”
Indeed, they allege his chief motivation in controlling the program is the ability to dole out approximately 65 “Shakman-exempt” jobs, so-called because they are not subject to the restrictions put forth by the Shakman Decrees, which aim to prevent patronage hiring.
“Alderman Burke hires his Workers’ Compensation subordinates based on their ability to help him secure votes for himself and his favored candidates,” the lawsuit reads.
“Alderman Burke’s political army that consists of his Workers’ Compensation employees are violating the First Amendment, Free Speech Rights of candidates, voters, and political organizations who are unaffiliated with Alderman Burke and the Cook County Democratic Organization that Alderman Burke has been a member of for over 50 years.”
“There’s almost nobody in city government outside the [workers’ compensation] program that knows how it works,” claimed a 2016 WTTW report on the workers’ comp oversight loophole. “No aldermen we spoke to had any clue how it worked.”
The same report noted Chicago was the only major city to run its workers’ compensation program out of a legislative committee. “The committee’s function [is] to manage the business of the council,” said Ald. John Arena, 45th Ward, “not to handle a program that deals with legal issues and medical issues.”
Illinois is home to the highest workers’ comp costs in the region, which take a bite out of government budgets. A 2017 report by the Illinois Policy Institute estimated workers’ comp costs Illinois taxpayers $1 billion a year.
At such a high price, the city’s lack of transparency is inexcusable.