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posted: 1/16/2014 6:29 AM

Editorial: Fix whistleblower law to boost safety

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Whistleblower laws and inspectors general have been big steps toward cleaning up government.

They allow people to point out wrongdoing anonymously with protection from reprisal and set the stage for independent investigations.

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But there's room for improvement.

That's the take-home message from the case of former Illinois Department of Labor employee Chuck Drager of Lisle. Drager recently resigned from his job as an inspector for the department after a report from Illinois Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza found he had falsified safety reports and ducked out of work early to get to his other job as a singer doing impressions of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Robert Plant and Etta James.

But somewhere between the false report in 2011 and Drager's resignation in March 2013 the law of unintended consequences took over. The "whistleblower" process actually might have led to Drager's staying on the job longer in a position where public safety was at stake.

Also, while his case went on for more than a year, Drager made nearly $100,000 in salary and raised his state pension by $1,200 a year, Daily Herald Suburban Tax Watchdog Editor Jake Griffin pointed out in a column on Wednesday.

What happened, according to the Department of Labor, is Drager's supervisor told Meza's office about allegations that Drager falsely claimed he witnessed an inspection of a ski lift at Villa Olivia in Bartlett.

The supervisor never told higher-ups at the Illinois Department of Labor, who would have taken action, a spokeswoman said. The supervisor since has left his job for reasons unrelated to this case, she said.

A change in policy obviously is in order at the Department of Labor to make sure allegations are passed on and addressed quickly, especially when public safety is at stake.

Meza's office looked into the accusations against Drager, but is legally prohibited from disclosing allegations until an investigation is complete, Meza said. New allegations prolonged the investigation even more.

Meanwhile, Drager stayed on the job, certifying the safety of amusement rides.

There's a reason for the inspector general's office to be circumspect. Some accusations are unfounded or malicious and shouldn't be aired before facts are known.

Still, exceptions need to be made in cases involving public safety so people who are the subject of credible allegations are removed from those duties during an investigation. The inspector general's office should work toward promoting that change in the law.

In this case, everything turned out OK. The Villa Olivia inspection went on without a state representative present and the ski lifts have been inspected annually since.

We might not be so lucky again.

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