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State escapes contempt over disability payments; judge calls actions 'disturbing'

Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger avoided a contempt citation Tuesday. | AP file photo

A federal judge on Tuesday declined to hold the state comptroller’s office in contempt of court for failing to pay court-ordered disability payments but said it was “disturbing” that the state remained silent while failing to comply.

In a court hearing, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman said she believed the office of Comptroller Leslie Munger had made every effort to catch up on back payments, following an accounting by the office submitted to the court last week.

Coleman left the door open to entertaining contempt orders in the future should the state again fail to make timely payments.

While there are ongoing budget issues facing the state, Coleman said she wasn’t getting in the middle of it. “This court is not going to allow political wrangling,” she said.

Munger, handpicked for her post by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, is already facing additional questions. The Senate’s Human Services Committee has asked her office to answer questions before the committee on Sept. 8 in Chicago or Sept. 9 in Springfield.

The chairman of the committee is state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston. Biss also happens to be interested in running for Munger’s post in 2016.

“Committee members, and all Illinois taxpayers, deserve complete transparency on what payments are being made and who is making these decisions and why. Vulnerable people are at risk, and we need to know about it,” Biss wrote in a letter sent to Munger’s office.

In court, Coleman took issue with the state for failing to notify her that it couldn’t comply with her order to pay services for the severely developmentally disabled by Aug. 21.

“That was disturbing to the court,” she said. Last week, lawyers for the Illinois Attorney General’s office told Coleman they passed along information to plaintiffs’ attorneys as quickly as they received it from the comptroller’s office.

At issue was why the state was late in funding services for the severely developmentally disabled — a class of about 10,000 adults — despite a court order in July spelling out that the payments must be made even if there was no state budget. When the payments didn’t come, the judge issued another order specifying a deadline, which the state did not meet. The comptroller’s office initially cited a “severe cash shortage” for failing to pay. A day after the Chicago Sun-Times wrote about the issue, the office made a $71 million payment.

On Tuesday, the office attributed the delay on the timing of vouchers it received from the Department of Human Services, saying it couldn’t pay bills until the vouchers were received. A DHS spokeswoman said Tuesday that the agency processed the vouchers as quickly as it could according to the judge’s schedule.

“The question as to why — is it bureaucracy at its worst, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing? Maybe. Is it something more sinister? Who knows,” said William Choslovsky, an attorney representing the disabled class. “What we do know . . . They had ample funds to pay all consent-decree obligations.”

Munger’s office on Tuesday released a statement saying she remained committed to paying out state money to make sure the state’s neediest continue to receive funding.

John Stevens, an attorney with Freeborn & Peters representing Munger’s office, wouldn’t commit how exactly bills would be prioritized going forward with respect as to whether they fell under consent decrees or courts governed by state or federal laws.

“There’s no real answer to that. Money comes in every day, demands on the treasury go out every day. It’s the comptroller’s job to make sure that everyone gets paid,” Stevens said.

“Hypotheticals don’t work for me,” he said. “The comptroller has repeatedly said she will do everything in her power to make sure the state’s needs get addressed.”