Posts Tagged ‘North Dakota’

An Open Letter to North Dakota

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

An open letter to the press, business community and people of North Dakota:
The authors of this letter are journalists, columnists, bloggers and content publishers for the workers’ compensation industry across the United States. We are a politically and professionally diverse group. We do not agree on everything, yet find ourselves of one opinion on a highly critical matter. We are competitors who are now colleagues for a common cause; to bring light to a serious injustice being committed within your state.
The prosecution of Charles (Sandy) Blunt was, in our view, an outrageous and almost farcical event. It is, in the final analysis, a travesty that has damaged the national view of your state, hampered the operation of a State agency, and ruined the life of a good man wholly undeserving of such results.
Sandy Blunt was Director of North Dakota’s Workforce Safety & Insurance from May of 2004 until December of 2007. He was, as you are likely aware, prosecuted by state authorities for “misspending government funds”. Specifically, he was charged and convicted on two counts:
During his almost 4 year tenure his agency spent approximately $11,000 on employee incentive items, including flowers, trinkets, balloons, decorations and beverages for Workforce Safety and Insurance employee meetings, and on gift certificates and cards in small denominations for restaurants, stores and movie theaters. Blunt personally approved some of these expenditures. Others were made by managers as part of daily operations under his watch. Not a dime went into an employee’s pocket, nor did Blunt personally benefit from any expenditure.
His agency paid $8,000 to an employee, David Spencer, for sick pay when he was not apparently sick, and it also failed to collect $7,000 from Spencer when he left prior to the end of his employment agreement. The $7000 was for moving expenses incurred that prosecutors felt Spencer owed the state. Blunt’s position was that the agency was not entitled to collect these funds, since Spencer’s departure was not voluntary.
All told, the state prosecuted Sandy Blunt, and he is now a convicted felon for “misspending” $26,000 of government money.
No one has ever alleged that Blunt personally benefited from any of these expenditures. Blunt was acting like other capable, ethical North Dakota executives ‐ in the best interest of customers and of the mission of his employer. In our industry it is considered a best practice to provide employees and supervisors with incentives. It is not frivolous, it’s necessary, and what every employer should do.
The first of these two charges would be, to many people, laughable if it were not for the damaging consequences associated with them. The notion that buying inexpensive incentive items for your employees could result in a felony conviction is simply stunning. This would not be elevated to a criminal status in most states in the nation. The fact that it is in North Dakota should have a chilling effect on businesses looking to move there.
The second and more serious charge, involving the sick pay and moving expenses of employee Spencer, has been fatally undermined by the revelation that the prosecutor in the matter, Cynthia Feland, withheld critical evidence from the defense – evidence that largely clears Blunt in this area. A disciplinary panel for the North Dakota Supreme Court has found on November 7, 2011 that:
“Cynthia M. Feland did not disclose to Michael Hoffman, defense attorney for Charles Blunt, the Wahl memo, and other documents which were evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tended to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigate the offense.”
Withholding of evidence by prosecutors is one of the most serious acts of prosecutorial misconduct in North Dakota and all other states. In recognition of this, the panel recommended Ms Feland’s license to practice law be suspended. We urge that you read the entire report of the panel, including the penalties the board recommended be imposed on Ms. Feland. For the report, go here.
Had the prosecutor not withheld evidence, in all likelihood the case would never have come to trial, and the reputation of Blunt and the WSI would be free of taint. The evidence in question shows that WSI’s auditor’s own findings backed Blunt’s position on payments related with Spencer. However, those findings were not made available to the defense, and the prosecutor was found to have allowed testimony to be given at the trial that directly conflicted with information she had. As we indicated, Feland, now a judge in your state, has been recommended for suspension and a fine over these findings.
Yet Sandy Blunt remains a convicted felon. His crime? Buying balloons, trinkets and $5 gift cards – for his employees, not for himself. For that, Blunt, who is married with two children, has had to spend half a decade, and untold thousands of dollars trying to clear his name.
Some of us have known Sandy for quite a while. Some have come to know him while learning of his situation. Others of us have never met Sandy, but recognize the tenuous nature of his treatment. Collectively we speak to thousands within our industry every day. Our opinions have been clear; this situation needs the light of truth shone brightly upon it. The time and resources expended prosecuting a man on such questionable grounds should be more closely examined, by the business community, workers compensation professionals and the media in North Dakota.
Sandy Blunt is a good and decent man. He deserves better. So, it would seem, do the people of North Dakota.
Peter Rousmaniere
Consultant & Writer
Working Immigrants
Robert Wilson
President & CEO
Joseph Paduda
Principal, Health Strategy Assoc, LLC
Managed Care Matters
Rebecca Shafer
Lower Your WC Costs
Julie Ferguson
Consultant & Editor
Workers’ Comp Insider
David DePaolo
President & CEO
Work Comp Central
Henry Stern, LUTCF, CBC
Tom Lynch
Founder & President
Lynch, Ryan & Associates, Inc.
Jon Coppelman
Senior Vice President
Lynch, Ryan & Associates, Inc.
Sandy Blunt related articles from these authors:
Blunting Political Vindictiveness
What’s wrong with Sandy Blunt
Is justice on the horizon in North Dakota?
Let Me Be Blunt: Sandy Got Screwed in North Dakota
The Square Wheels of Justice in the Peoples Republic of North Dakota

Cavalcade of Risk, Rocky Mountain Style, and other news notes

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Check out the Rocky Mountain High Edition of Cavalcade of Risk. Louise of Colorado Health Insurance Insider produces a great compendium of recent “best of the web” risk posts on a variety of topics ranging from the ubiquitous health care debates to investing and long term insurance. It’s a great way to get a sampling of several blogs. Plus, Louise and Jay’s blog always offers a refreshing street-level view of issues related to health care. They offer a wise take on the big issues but also offer good advice on everyday health issues: If you ever get a rock stuck in your nose…”.
A good man wronged – Joe Paduda has been fighting the good fight for Sandy Blunt, former North Dakota state work comp fund CEO. Blunt had a recent setback when the Supreme Court affirmed his felony conviction, but more recently we learn that the prosecutor is under investigation for prosecutorial misconduct in the case. One of the charges against her is allegedly withholding exculpatory evidence from Blunt’s attorney. (If you aren’t familiar with the Blunt case, see Peter Rousmaniere’s article Blunting Political Vindictiveness or plug “Blunt” into Joe’s search feature and catch up.) We had the good fortune to meet Blunt at an industry symposium prior to all these events – he was on fire with his commitment to overhaul the ND agency, to inspire employees and employers alike, and to ensure the best possible care for injured workers. Innovative, energetic, creative – by all accounts, he was making a significant positive impact. Then came a series of surprising charges resulting in his ouster. As we’ve noted before, most of these charges were minor, trumped up administrative issues, such as spending a few hundred dollars on lunches and gift certificates to motivate staff – practices that were not uncommon in other state departments. Other more serious charges were dismissed or shown to be erroneous – and now we have potential prosecutorial misconduct being investigated.
ADA at 20 years – It’s been 20 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, a groundbreaking initiative which afforded unprecedented public access and workplace protections to the disabled. All those parking spots, wheelchair ramps, wider doorways, and sloped curbs? They didn’t exist a few decades ago. For a commemorative featuring recent news stories, commentary and employer resources, see HR Web Cafe: The ADA at 20 Years.
Calling Uncle Sam – Is the workers comp system broken for occupational diseases such as the ones that are likely to result from the BP oil spill cleanup? Peter Rousmaniere thinks so – the feds have had to bail the system out in two prior catastrophes within the past decade. He makes the case for federalizing occupational disease in his column at Risk and Insurance.
Walking the walk when it comes to obesity – Employees at Total Medical Solutions are taking their role as health care providers to heart and taking a leadership stance when it comes to doing something about obesity. In the last three months, 25 employees have shed a total of more than 400 pounds, and achieved good local press for their accomplishments. We were reminded of seeing this story when we read Roberto Cenicero’s post on the biggest loser, corporate edition, which talks about a competitive challenge several of Minnesota’s largest corporations have embarked on. His post also links to a recent study from Integrated Benefits Institute on “health and productivity management” practices at 450 U.S. companies.
Quick lesson in how to save $550,000 – Discouraging employees from filing a workers compensation claim for an on-the-job injury is a no-no. Just ask Rawley’s of California how they fared in a recent criminal investigation, which revealed that some managers were routinely telling injured employees to use their own insurance rather than report injuries to the state.
In the “what else is new” department… – Mark Hoffmann of Business Insurance reports on news from the most recent RIMS Benchmark Survey: The soft market is still going strong. “The survey, based on information provided by risk managers, found that workers compensation experienced the greatest decline in the second quarter, at 3.8%, while property and D&O dropped by 3.5%.”

Cavalcade of Risk and other news briefs

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

The first Cavalcade of Risk of the new decade has been posted by Louise of Colorado Health Insurance Insider – check it out. And while you’re visiting the Cavalcade, why not check out the rest of the entries on the C.H.I.I. blog? We don’t live in Colorado, but if we did, we’d definitely be doing business with Jay and Louise Norris.
The importance of the right doctor – Roberto Ceniceros of Comp Time posts about a new John Hopkins study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that shows that 3.7% of doctors accounted for 72% of claim costs in a study of claims data from Louisiana Workers’ Comp Corporation from 1998 to 2002. He notes that one of the researchers commented, “…it makes sense to analyze how practice patterns drive costs before instituting sweeping reform.”
Sandy Blunt and the goings on in North Dakota – Good for Peter Rousmaniere and Joe Paduda for shedding light on the travesty of a prosecution related to Sandy Blunt, former CEO of North Dakota’s Workforce Safety and Insurance. I met Sandy Blunt at a conference in DC a number of years ago and had been following the turn-around he was effecting in North Dakota’s system. He struck me as progressive, innovative, and very sharp – it seemed a real coup for North Dakota to have his services. Then came a series of surprising charges resulting in his ouster. In following the case, it appears that most of these charges were minor, trumped up administrative issues, such as spending a few hundred dollars on lunches and gift certificates to motivate staff – practices that were not uncommon in other state departments. Other more serious charges were dismissed or shown to be erroneous. Blunt has appealed his conviction to the state’s Supreme Court and we hope he will prevail.
Insurance Fraud – Emily Holbrook of Risk Monitor posts about a spike in insurance fraud as indicated by a recent report from the Coalition of Insurance Fraud: “Overall, the economy in 2009 appears to have had a significant impact on the incidence of fraud. On average, fraud bureaus reported the number of referrals received and cases opened increased in all 15 categories of fraud included in the survey.” Unsurprisingly, the biggest number of fraud cases occurred in the category of bogus health insurance.
Popcorn flavorings vs public and worker health – Celeste Monforton of The Pump Handle provides an update on a public health issue of concern to workers and consumers alike: butter flavorings in popcorn. After a public outcry about diacetyl flavorings, which were causing worker and consumer health problems, the industry began substituting a product labeled as “no diacetyl.” Preliminary reports from NIOSH indicate that these chemical changes do not translate into less health risk to exposed workers and consumers.
EEOC reportWorkplace Prof Blog posts about Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforcement statistics, which were recently issued for fiscal year 2009. A sampling from the EEOC press release: “The FY 2009 data show that private sector job bias charges (which include those filed against state and local governments) alleging discrimination based on disability, religion and/or national origin hit record highs. The number of charges alleging age-based discrimination reached the second-highest level ever. Continuing a decade-long trend, the most frequently filed charges with the EEOC in FY 2009 were charges alleging discrimination based on race (36%), retaliation (36%), and sex-based discrimination (30%). Multiple types of discrimination may be alleged in a single charge filing.”
Work violenceDoes the economy play a role in workplace violence? That’s a question posed by the Christian Science Monitor in the light of a recent shooting rampage by a disgruntled worker of manufacturer ABB Group in St. Louis that left three dead and several wounded. One factor that the article did not reference is the stress that many people feel post holidays. This story brought to mind a post-holiday workplace shooting rampage in Massachusetts a number of years ago involving another disgruntled employee.

“No, Edith, There is No Sanity Clause”

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

You probably never heard of Gilby, North Dakota, population 226. Edith Johnson, 56, worked as a teller in the town’s bank, which, somewhat surprisingly, has been robbed three times. Edith was in the bank during two of the robberies. The last one was especially traumatic: she was handcuffed and placed face down on the floor with a sawed off shotgun pressed against her head. After this incident, she became too afraid to return to her job. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, she filed for workers comp. The claim was denied. North Dakota, like many other states, will pay a “mental” claim only if it is precipitated by a physical injury.
Edith has an attorney and is appealing the denial of her claim. Given the way the law is written, she is unlikely to prevail.
The irony, of course, is that with just a bit of coaching at the time of the incident, it would have been easy for Edith to collect comp. All she would have had to do is complain about a pain in her wrist and shoulder, caused by the handcuffs and the awkward position on the floor. Even without objective medical evidence, these physical complaints would have opened the door to her claim of post-traumatic stress.
Coming from a small town and working as a bank teller, Edith is undoubtedly the soul of rectitude. She is not about to tell a lie. Unfortunately, she is up against the letter of the law, which, in North Dakota, is very clear. Workers Safety and Insurance director Bryan Klipfel explains the denial: “A post-traumatic stress disorder that is directly related to a physical workplace injury may be compensable if it can be shown that it was primarily caused by the physical work injury, as opposed to all other contributing causes.”
Letter and Spirit
Edith’s dilemma reminds me of the scene in the immortal Marx Brothers movie, “A Night at the Opera.” Groucho (Otis. B. Driftwood) and Chico (Fiorello) are discussing the proposed language of a contract. Every time Chico objects, Groucho tears the page from the contract.
Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…
Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

With that impeccable logic, the Insider wishes the beleagured Edith and the citizens of Gilby all the best and we bid our readers a splendid holiday. Every week we try to invoke the “sanity clause” in risk management and workers comp. It’s not always easy. We sincerely hope that Santa – whether or not he exists – rewards you for all the good that you have done this year.