Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger holds a press conference last month. File photo. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

Federal judge to state: Explain why you’re not in contempt of court

SHARE Federal judge to state: Explain why you’re not in contempt of court
SHARE Federal judge to state: Explain why you’re not in contempt of court

A federal judge threatened to hold lawyers for the state of Illinois in contempt of court Wednesday for failing to pay bills for adults with severe developmental disabilities on time.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman stopped short of actually issuing the contempt order, instead demanding the state provide a full written explanation by noon Friday of why it did not comply with her order to make the payments.

The judge also wants Comptroller Leslie Munger to detail what vendors the state did pay before the parties falling under Coleman’s order.

The judge acknowledged the dire budget mess in Springfield, but she said the state can’t ignore her previous order to pay up.

“Otherwise, you are in contempt of the court’s order,” Coleman said.

In a written order issued later in the day, Coleman demanded that the Comptroller’s office give her an accounting of which bills the state paid since Aug. 18. That’s after attorneys representing the service providers complained that Munger’s office on Aug. 24 paid out more than $243 million to other vendors but did not pay claims required by the court’s order.

Coleman wants to know why.

“Defendants must provide a list of payments that have been made since 8/18/2015 to any other entity (not the beneficiaries here) that may have impacted payments due under this Consent Decree,” Coleman’s written order states.

Democrats have charged that the state should have plenty of incoming cash and questioned whether Munger, a Republican appointee of Gov. Bruce Rauner, was hand-picking which bills to pay to create a pressure point in a contentious budget debate.

RELATED:Brown: Fight over developmentally disabled puts state’s priorities on trial

Attorneys representing 10,000 Illinois residents with disabilities filed an emergency motion in federal court Tuesday asking that the state be held “in civil contempt of court” for failing to pay for services for the severely disabled. Some payments have been on hold since July 1.

Munger’s office has said it couldn’t make payments on time because of a “severe cash shortage.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Rauner have been at loggerheads over approving a state budget ever since the governor vetoed the budget the Democratic-controlled Legislature sent him. Rauner has acknowledged the state needs more revenue but said he wants pro-growth reforms that curb union power before he will agree to any tax increase.

Rauner’s office would not say this week whether it had a role in deciding which vendors were paid in what order. And his aides did not respond to a request to comment on Wednesday’s court proceeding.

Munger later issued a statement in which she said she appreciated that the court recognized “the difficult challenge we face in making necessary payments” because the state has not passed a balanced budget.

“My priority remains to ensure that organizations serving our elderly, children and other most vulnerable residents take precedence when it comes to state payments. As a longtime volunteer and former Board member for an organization serving the intellectually and developmentally disabled, I know firsthand the hardship that is caused when payments don’t arrive as scheduled, and I will do everything in my power to lead the state in keeping its promises to those most in need,” Munger said in the statement.

“In the absence of a balanced budget for this fiscal year, my office will continue to work to meet the payment timelines set by the Courts despite the state’s limited resources.

“To be clear: taxpayers deserve better than government by Court Order. Ultimately, we can best serve Illinois families, businesses and organizations by passing a balanced budget that includes reforms that will allow us to become more competitive and grow our economy so we can put people back to work and fund critical services.”

Tuesday afternoon, the comptroller’s office had said it had come up with $71 million in expedited payments to fund at least some of what it owes to a group protected under a federal consent decree. That was only a partial payment.

William Choslovsky, an attorney representing the Misericordia home for people with developmental disabilities, told Coleman the state “blatantly” ignored her order.

“They’re choosing to ignore it and choosing to prioritize as they see fit,” Choslovsky said.

In Springfield, the right hand may not know what the left is doing, he told the judge.

“I think the right and left hands are wringing each other,” Coleman replied.

Equip for Equality, a group that also is trying to make sure the state pays up, issued a statement saying the group “will not rest until all services for all of our clients have been paid” by the state.

“People with developmental disabilities have been needlessly put at risk of serious harm because of the State’s failure to comply with the Judge’s order,” said Barry C. Taylor, the organization’s vice president for civil rights and systemic litigation.

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman

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