Lightfoot denies Mendoza claims she directed board to deny full benefits for cops disabled by COVID

CHICAGO (CBS) — Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza is accusing Mayor Lori Lightfoot of failing Chicago police officers who contracted COVID-19 on the job and were forced to end their careers due to complications from the illness.

And it’s personal for Mendoza, because her brother – a former detective sergeant – was denied "duty disability" benefits by the police pension board, which would have provided health and financial benefits.

Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza was hospitalized for more than two months after getting COVID-19, and hasn’t been able to work since getting sick in November 2020, before there was a vaccine. He sought "duty disability," which would have provided 75% of his regular salary and free health care, rather than "ordinary disability," which provides only half salary for only five years, with no health care.

Chicago Police Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza
Chicago Police Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza
Photo provided to CBS

But the pension board denied him duty disability, granting him only an ordinary disability, and that ruling was held up by a Cook County judge, ruling he couldn’t prove he contracted COVID-19 on the job. His attorneys have noted that under state law, if police officers die of COVID-19, it’s presumed they got it on duty, effectively punishing officers for not dying if they become disabled by the disease.

Comptroller Mendoza accused of instructing the pension board members she appointed to vote against granting "duty disability" to officers forced off the job by COVID-19.

"The city is making some of these officers feel like they are worth more dead than alive. That’s unforgivable, especially at a time when suicides among CPD officers are at an all time high," Comptroller Mendoza said.

Mendoza said her brother has suffered five strokes, lost the use of his kidneys, is in need of dialysis for the remainder of his life, and no longer can use his left arm as a result of COVID-19.

The comptroller accused Lightfoot’s appointed pension board members of creating an impossible standard of proof that ensures no officer will benefit from full "duty disability" due to COVID-19.

"I do 100 percent hold her responsible, because her handpicked appointees followed the direction of the mayor," Mendoza said.

Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza
Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza

Lightfoot vehemently denied that, insisting she has given no such directives to the board members she appointed.

"Any suggestion that I or anyone in my administration is indifferent to the cause and suffering of first-responders when it comes to COVID issues is just utter nonsense," she said. "In my administration, we simply don’t play politics with the pension code, and we don’t play politics with the law."

The mayor noted the board is evenly divided between four police officers elected by members of CPD, and four financial experts appointed by the mayor. She said the board acts independently, regardless of who an officer filing a claim might be related to.

"The four pension boards must be independent, and the claimants appearing before them have a right to expect that they will receive individualized review of their specific cases; and each pension board must act without fear or favor," Lightfoot said. "I never ask, nor do I receive any information about any of them, nor would I. No one gets special treatment because of who they are or to whom they’re related, and that doesn’t change whether we are in the week before an election or at any other time of the year. I don’t get involved with, and I definitely don’t interfere with pension board decisions."

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Mendoza isn’t buying Lightfoot’s denial of involvement in the disability decisions.

"For her to say she did not give them direction to deny COVID benefits is like saying that the Pope is Presbyterian. That is just not true," she said. "No one on that board that is appointed by the mayor just does their own whims there. That’s part of being the mayor, and for her to say that that’s the old of doing it versus her way of doing it, that’s just, it’s not true."

Lightfoot said Mendoza approached her at a social function last month, where the comptroller told about her brother’s personal situation where Mendoza was "extraordinarily emotional" and "let fly some accusations." Lightfoot said she walked away after hearing out Mendoza.

The mayor also noted the timing of Mendoza’s claims coming one week before the mayoral election isn’t lost on her. Mendoza ran against Lightfoot in the 2019 race for mayor, coming in 5th in a field of 14 candidates.

Meantime, Mendoza said she is proposing state legislation to allow police officers who become disabled by COVID-19 to get the same presumption that they got sick on the job as officers who die of the virus.

While Lightfoot did not specifically support Mendoza’s proposal, she said, "Let’s work to fix what is broken if it’s broken but the leveling of accusations on people for following the law is simply unnecessary, unfair, and false."

"If the law needs to be changed, then Springfield should act to ensure greater protection of our first responders under the pension code, and we will join anyone of good will in making sure that we do the right thing, and make the changes that are necessary to protect our first responders, but again it’s not about me making these individualized decisions," Lightfoot said.

Region: Chicago,Politics,City: Chicago

via Politics – CBS Chicago

February 21, 2023 at 04:48PM

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