For decades, critics have alleged that Ald. Edward M. Burke runs the city’s $100 million workers compensation program as a secretive old-school patronage haven, hiring such “experts” as a dog groomer and a hairstylist and doling out disability pay to the politically connected.
Could the accusations be true? You bet. Which explains the “secretive” part.
If Burke says otherwise, let him open the books and prove it.
So we’d like to enthusiastically second mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot’s call for Burke to step down as chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, which he will not. And that being the case, we’d like to urge the mayor and the Council to push him out, which they will not.
What can we say? Sometimes an editorial page just has to stand up for principles. Even when writing about the Chicago City Council.
We actually disagree with Lightfoot’s reasoning as to why Burke should step down as head of the Finance Committee. Her argument is that Burke’s “legitimacy” evaporated last week when federal agents raided Burke’s City Council and ward offices and seized records.
“You cannot have legitimacy when there’s this cloud of suspicion hanging over somebody who has amassed this much of power,” Lightfoot told Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times.
But to push somebody out of job before a criminal complaint has even been filed hardly seems fair. Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) is actually under indictment, yet he still sits on the City Council.
Burke should be stripped of his powers because he had no legitimacy to begin with. The feudal manner in which he runs the workers’ comp program has always been an insult to good government.
By all rights, the workers’ comp program should be taken from the Finance Committee, where it has never appropriately belonged, and made an administrative responsibility within the executive branch — the mayor’s office — as in other big cities.
Chicago’s workers comp system, which provides benefits to city workers injured on the job, became ensconced in the Finance Committee long before Burke was appointed alderman of the 14th Ward in 1969. But in the half century he has been the boss, its inner workings have been a complete mystery.
In 2006, a Sun-Times investigation exposed such abuses as allowing patronage workers to file for injury claims at a higher rate than any occupation tracked by the Labor Department — including the most dangerous ones — and paying workers comp benefits to people who held outside jobs. The highest rates of injuries coincided with the names of people who had the most clout.
Three years earlier, the Sun-Times ran a series of similar stories, including one about the city forking over $136,036 to a Streets and Sanitation worker who beat up his daughter’s boyfriend while out on disability for an injured hand.
In 2016, whistleblowers again called the workers comp program a cesspool of patronage and favoritism, yet Burke managed to convince the City Council to block the city’s inspector general from auditing and investigating the Finance Committee.
What exactly is Burke afraid an auditor might find? Maybe the feds will shed some light.
Chicago’s workers comp program is entirely self-insured, so every Chicago taxpayer has a direct financial stake in how well it is run. But as Finance Committee chair, Burke alone picks all the staff, including the lawyers and doctors who represent the city in workers comp cases. And Burke signs off on every disability claim.
In a lawsuit filed in July, Jay Stone, a son of former Ald. Bernie Stone, accused Burke of exploiting the workers comp program to award jobs to people who can bring in votes for him and his favored candidates. He also accused Burke of cutting disability checks as favors to political pals, such as to a precinct captain of a fellow alderman.
A better workers compensation system can be found right down the hall in the combined City Hall and County County building in the Loop. County workers comp cases are handled by a division of the state’s attorney’s office, with regular reports to a committee of the County Board. In a similar way, the city’s corporation counsel could handle workers comp cases, with oversight from a City Council committee.
This would require a mayor and City Council willing to cross Burke, which we haven’t seen since at least the days of Mayor Harold Washington.
Who knows why.
Maybe the feds can clue us in on that, too.
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