Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Open Letter to North Dakota

[We've rarely (if ever) weighed in on WC issues, but this case appears uniquely egregious. Our friend Joe Paduda has helped spearhead an effort to better publicize this travesty, and we were happy to lend our support. HGS]

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.

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