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Feds probe disabled Chicago cops in wake of Sun-Times report

Donald Barnes, a Chicago police officer on disability leave since July 1997. Wednesday, May 16, 2012. Barnes, suffered from a heat stroke condition, while in the police academy. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

A federal grand jury has begun looking into payments made to Chicago cops on disability in the wake of a Chicago Sun-Times investigation.

The grand jury issued a subpoena Monday to Chicago’s police pension board, demanding virtually all of its records on disabled police officers, including medical reports, dating to January 2006.

It’s unclear whether the grand jury also is looking into the disability claims of firefighters and paramedics, who also were part of the Sun-Times investigation.

Policemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund of Chicago officials would not comment on the subpoena, which gives them until Oct. 23 to provide to the grand jury records including:

◆ Injury reports with the officers’ names, a description of their injuries and the names of the doctors who treated them.

◆ Doctors’ reports, including any treatment prescribed.

◆ “All reports prepared by claims investigators, underwriters and adjusters, and any other parties employed or retained to process, investigate, subrogate, monitor and adjudicate duty-disability claims.”

◆ Records regarding each officer’s “return-to-work status.”

◆ Records of any officers who asked for and were “refused accommodation to return to restricted work by city of Chicago departments.”

A spokesman said the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago had no comment on the grand jury subpoena, which follows a series of reports in the Sun-Times about police and fire disability-pay excesses that already had prompted a City Hall crackdown and the suspension of disability payments to one officer.

That officer, Charles T. Siedlecki, got a law degree, went to work as a lawyer and took up big-game hunting in Africa after going on disability two decades ago, claiming a shoulder injury left him unable to safely fire his weapon and return to work as a cop. The police pension board asked the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to investigate Siedlecki, who had collected more than $715,000 in disability pay.

RELATED: ‘Disabled’ former Chicago paramedic now a cop

Siedlecki, 57, has since applied for retirement benefits from the cash-strapped police pension fund, which is largely supported by taxpayers.

The Sun-Times’ investigation exposed a police and fire disability system in Chicago that does little to get injured officers and firefighters back on the job. Few officers on disability leave ever return to work, even though the Chicago Police Department has a “limited-duty” program allowing injured officers who can’t return to the street to come back in other jobs in the department.

The series of stories, published beginning in July, documented cases, like that of Siedlecki, in which some of those on leave are collecting disability checks even while working other jobs — including jobs with physical demands such as construction work and bodyguard services.

In all, the 347 officers on disability leave collected more than $18 million a year, plus millions more in free health insurance.

Few had been shot or stabbed. Most were hurt in car accidents.

One of the officers highlighted in the reports never served a single day on the street, going on disability as the result of injuries sustained during training at the police academy.

Officers injured in the line of duty can remain off work, on sick leave, for 365 days. If they are unable to return to work after a year, they can begin collecting disability payments, a program funded and operated by the police pension fund. Officers can collect disability pay until they reach the police department’s mandatory retirement age of 63. Then they can begin collecting their pensions, which would be based on the years they spent on the disability rolls.

The newspaper also examined the city of Chicago firefighters’ pension fund, which has 390 employees on disability leave, collecting a total of more than $27 million a year.

The fire department has no limited-duty program for injured firefighters and paramedics, some of whom get their disability pay even after moving on to other jobs, including one fire inspector and a nurse.

Fire pension board officials would not comment on whether they have been subpoenaed by the grand jury.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel — whose top City Hall financial officers are on the police and fire pension boards that oversee disability payments — has proposed a series of reforms to crack down on what he has labeled the “abuse and fraud” exposed by the Sun-Times.

The subpoena comes about two months after a federal grand jury subpoenaed the City Council’s Finance Committee, chaired by Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), demanding six years of records regarding the workers compensation program that covers city employees other than police and firefighters.

Burke got the subpoena after refusing to turn over the records to city of Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. Burke has said Ferguson has no authority to investigate the City Council. Ferguson has said he is trying to investigate the $115 million-a-year program that provides benefits to injured workers.

Six years ago, the Sun-Times reported that one of every five patronage workers on a “clout list” kept by Mayor Richard M. Daley’s patronage chief filed at least one workers compensation claim against the city, costing taxpayers more than $38 million a year. That prompted a federal grand jury to subpoena Burke’s records in 2006, but nothing came of that investigation.