Singing state worker kept on day job a year after filing false report
Even after his supervisors at the Illinois Department of Labor discovered Chuck Drager fudged a safety inspection report for a suburban ski lift, he was allowed to continue working for more than a year before resigning in disgrace.
During that time, Drager not only received almost $100,000 in pay while knowingly being investigated, but he continued to falsify safety reports, state inspectors said. The 58-year-old Lisle man also supplemented his $70,000-a-year state amusement ride safety inspector job by performing as a "vocal impressionist," sometimes cutting out of work early to make gigs where he impersonates the likes of Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, Lionel Richie and Etta James.
That's all according to a report released last year by state Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza's office that eventually triggered Drager's resignation. In the report, investigators claim Drager admitted falsifying documents, but in the months after his resignation, Drager denied doctoring reports.
State labor department officials acknowledge Drager should have been fired when it was learned he submitted a false safety test report for a new ski lift at Bartlett's Villa Olivia ski hill in late 2011. However, a spokeswoman for labor department Director Joe Costigan said Drager's direct supervisor never informed department higher-ups about Drager's misdeeds but instead turned over that information to the inspector general's office, which was already investigating Drager for other work violations.
"We were not aware of this until it was brought to our attention by the EIG," said labor department spokeswoman Anjali Julka. "We would not have allowed any sort of misconduct."
Why didn't Meza's office report the violation to Costigan's office to expedite Drager's ouster?
"We're prohibited from disclosing anything during the course of the investigation," Meza said.
Because it prolonged the investigation, the more Drager shirked his responsibilities, the longer he kept his job.
That also helped boost the 15-year state employee's pension. The extra time on the job will amount to about $1,200 more annually when Drager begins collecting his pension, officials from the State Employees' Retirement System said. He'll get to keep his pension because he was never criminally charged with falsifying the safety reports.
Meza's office began investigating Drager in mid-2011. He was interviewed about alleged misconduct relating to his secondary job as a singer in October 2011, according to a state investigative report released in July 2013.
A little more than a month after meeting with investigators, Drager wrote the fake report about witnessing mandatory weight tests for the new ski lift at Villa Olivia, the inspector general's report says.
In the report Drager submitted, he stated he "observed" the test. Yet, officials from the Bartlett Park District notified Drager's supervisor by phone that no one from the state had shown up on two consecutive dates to witness the tests. State officials redacted the name of Drager's supervisor from the report and Julka said the man is no longer employed by the labor department, though she noted his departure is not related to the Drager investigation.
Additionally, the manufacturer of the ski lift submitted the results of the required safety tests to the state shortly after they were performed, indicating "no authorities were present" at the testing. Rita Fletcher, the Bartlett Park District's executive director, is the one who notified Drager's boss the inspector hadn't shown up for the tests.
The state never sent any other inspectors back out to retest the lift before it was opened to the public Dec. 22, 2011, she said. Fletcher said the state accepted the results of the manufacturer's test and she was told "as long as we had everything certified, we'd be good to go."
The ski lift is inspected every year before the ski hill is reopened to the public.
When asked by Meza's investigators about the weight tests at the ski hill more than a year later, Drager admitted he never witnessed any, claiming he left early because he was sick and never got out of his car.
In February 2012, Drager also submitted time sheets stating he had spent two days inspecting inflatable "bounce houses" for a company that rents the children's party favorites. Investigators determined he was there only one day. Additionally, the investigation revealed Drager often claimed to be working when in fact he was performing at singing engagements throughout the suburbs.
He also billed the state for double the amount of tolls he actually paid while on duty and was ordered to repay the state $1,000, according to the EIG report.
Drager did not respond to several calls seeking comment. But he appeared on the Jonathon Brandmeier show on WGN.fm last November to discuss his resignation in March 2013 as well as his singing career. During the program, Drager admitted to cutting out of work early but claimed he made the time up since "carnivals are not a 9 to 5 business."
"They went through thousands of inspections I did and they found only four indiscretions," he told Brandmeier. "I could only explain them, but they didn't want an explanation."
Drager denied falsifying inspection reports.
"I never compromised an inspection," he said. "Anything I ever documented from an inspection point, I actually did."
Meza's investigation revealed a history of Drager falsifying inspection reports and recommended that the labor department "take whatever action it deems necessary to address the inspection inadequacies" uncovered.
Julka said the amusement ride inspection division was already undergoing a review of practices and policies during Drager's investigation. A new manager for the division has "implemented mechanisms to increase accountability and to strengthen the department's regulation of amusement rides and attractions," Julka said. Inspectors now have to sign confirmation letters in front of operators and owners noting the inspector's presence at tests, she said.
As for the time it took to oust Drager, Meza said it "reflects the fact that our investigation was thorough and methodical."
"If it wasn't for our investigation, he would still be working and conducting inspections," Meza said.
But Julka contends that if the labor department hierarchy had known of the allegations against Drager, its response would have been swifter.
"Such action would have been suspension pending termination, based on the employee's collective bargaining agreement."
In the end, Drager was allowed to simply resign. On the way out he paid back the $1,000 he bilked by doubling toll charges, but he didn't have to repay the state for the salary he received when he was actually singing, which investigators estimated to be about $685. He also received $7,466 in unpaid sick and vacation time as well as $3,964 in accrued overtime pay when he left his job, according to the Illinois Comptroller's office.