Corruption at North Dakota's WSI: Deja Vu

February 26, 2012


It feels like a mystery novel: political corruption in a government agency, the CEO convicted of a felony.  A late night search with a flashlight reveals a cryptic journal entry: "Got the secret documents out."  A top executive blows the whistle, gets fired and sues, then gets accused of sexual dalliances.  No local press even covers the trial, and then the jury gets the verdict wrong.

But it is no novel;  it is the real life story of Jim Long's whistleblower lawsuit against North Dakota's Workforce Safety Insurance division.  While the jury deliberated over whether or not Long had legally achieved whistleblower status, the most significant news that came out of that trial is the fact that the state of North Dakota has no process to investigate itself.  

 

And there remains the elephant in the courtroom:  did WSI purposely deny claims to legitimately injured workers?

We may yet get that answer, as the saga continues.  But then again, given the way allegations of wrongdoing at WSI are investigated (or not investigated,) we may never know.

The Fargo Forum reports that yet another whistleblower, Barbara Frohlich, has stepped forward at WSI, saying a notepad medical entry favorable to a worker’s claim had been illegally deleted so the agency would not have to pay out a claim.

But unlike Jim Long, who made similar accusations,Frohlich is backed up by a powerful ally: the medical director for WSI, Dr. Luis Vilella, wrote to state medical licensing officials saying WSI management twice pressured him to alter his medical opinions.

Regarding Frohlich's allegations, the Fargo Forum writes, "An internal review by WSI concluded that nothing improper happened when the record was deleted."  And regarding Vilella's: "Bryan Klipfel, director of WSI, said an internal review found no instances in which a medical opinion was altered at the request of a claims official or lawyer."

Déjà vu. Internal reviews.  No genuine independent external reviews are ever permitted at WSI.

When Jim Long tried to get the state of North Dakota to externally investigate his allegations of violations of law at WSI, the best the state could do was to turn the case over to – drum roll please - the Highway Patrol.  Highway Patrolman do an excellent job piecing together how a road accident occurred, but they are not trained to conduct investigations into complex medical, financial and legal matters such as you'd find in a worker's compensation agency. And they apparently have little latitude in conducting such investigations.  In the Long case, Highway Patrolman Shannon Henke said Attorney General Stenjehem tasked him only with figuring out whether WSI fired Long because he blew the whistle;  Henke said allegations of actual law breaking at WSI were never investigated.
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Once again, according to the Forum, North Dakota State Attorney General  Stenjehem's office advised Frohlich to complain about illegal activity at WSI to the ill equipped Highway Patrol.   Only now, more than a year after the Long whistleblower trial, the guy who used to run the Highway Patrol is now head honcho at WSI. 

Ya think HP will investigate WSI this time?  Want to bet?

From the Forum piece, "On Feb. 10, about the time Vilella said he was twice asked to alter his opinions, he wrote the agency’s top lawyer about his autonomy and the medical director’s ethical obligation to impartially weigh information while evaluating an injured worker’s benefit claim."

So Dr. Vilella wrote the agency's top lawyer.  That's Jodi Bjornson, the John Woo of WSI.    


Jodi Bjornson was the same lawyer who advised then WSI Special Investigative Unit head Romi Leingang it was perfectly fine for her and Sandy Blunt to go into N.D. Department of Transportation's databases to obtain photographs of WSI employees who had complained about Blunt's actions.  Blunt then had his minions take those photos to local post offices and elsewhere, asking questions, creating the impression of wrongdoing by the employees.  Guess what?  Using DOT files in that way is a felony.  But Blunt and Leingang got off that charge, using the excuse that their attorney advised it was okay.  

Blunt was indicted – and convicted – of misuse of public funds.   Blunt did not personally profit from those public funds, and many believe Blunt got a raw deal. Still, talk around the WSI watercooler is that the real crime Blunt committed was authorizing an illegal witch hunt of innocent employees;  if they couldn't get him on that, they were happy they got him on lesser charges, kind of like Al Capone going down for tax evasion.   

The bulk of those public funds were monies Blunt should have recouped from his buddy Dave Spencer after he resigned from WSI.  It is relevant to note that attorney Jodi Bjornson again gave Blunt bad legal advice, telling him he did not need to recoup those fees.

In private business, any attorney who gave legal advice so bad that it got her boss indicted for felonies would immediately be dismissed.  But at WSI, it is convenient to have an attorney that will say what the agency wants to hear.

Bjornson did not get fired; she got a raise. 

Bjornson led some internal investigations in the Long whistleblower case as well. 

Long and then Internal Auditor Kay Grinsteinner suspected WSI Press Officer (and former local radio celebrity and current Burleigh County Commissioner) Mark Armstrong of colluding with top WSI brass to withhold payments to injured workers.   Late at night, using only a flashlight for illumination, they discovered Armstrong's journal in his mess of an office at WSI. Among other entries about the indictment of Blunt, hey found this cryptic handwritten entry:  "Got the secret documents out.  Lengenfelder did the deed but ran into Dave Thompson in the press room."  

Got the secret documents out.  A smoking gun to be sure.  Whatever could it mean?

Armstrong testified he could understand why his entry could seem suspicious, but all anyone had to do was ask him about it, they didn't need to take it all the way to law enforcement. Under oath, Armstrong testified that he had developed some materials to help Sandy Blunt defend himself in the press after he'd been suspended from WSI, but as WSI's Press Officer, he could not disseminate the materials to the press himself.   He said he asked his friend Lengenfelder to hand them off to reporter Dave Thompson at a function at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit church. That, he implied, was all there was to "the secret documents."

Uh huh.

But there's that nagging "press room" entry.  During Long's whistleblower trial, then acting CEO John Halvorson testified that there is no press room at WSI, so clearly that exchange about secret documents and the press room could not have been at the WSI building.

But, see, I used to attend the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit church, and I know it does not have a press room, either.  So clearly, that exchange about secret documents and the press room could not have happened at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.  
But the person tasked with investigating just what those words really meant never figured that out.  In her internal "investigation," Bjornson bought Armstrong's story hook, line and sinker.  Her sworn testimony: "He explained the secret documents and I took him at his word." 

As simple as that.  Case closed.  Get back to work at WSI, and keep those insurance premiums low for business.

Jim Long never got the State of North Dakota to truly investigate allegations that WSI management was purposely denying legitimate claims to injured workers.  He lost his whistleblower action.  Now more whistleblowers are emerging with a similar tale, and are getting an eerily similar pushback.  And again, it is Jodi Bjornson leading internal "investigations." 

No wonder the State of North Dakota earned USA Today's distinction as the most corrupt state in the Union. 



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footnote:

Who am I to say the jury got part of the Jim Long verdict wrong?  Day after day, for nearly three weeks in November 2010, I sat through the trial.  The jury listened, but I took detailed notes, all which can be found on my blog.  I know the case as well, no actually, I know it better than the seated jurors. 

Judge Ronald Goodman asked the jury whether Long had engaged in protected whistleblower activity.  In the judge's instructions, he said, "Protected activity is defined as reporting suspected violations of the rules, regulations, or the law to authorities."   

The jury of six women and three men said no. 

Huh?  

Jim Long clearly handed WSI's press officer Mark Armstrong's journal (which also detailed a plan to use the County Commissioner's office to put political pressure on the state Attorney General's office so it would not prosecute CEO Blunt) to N.D.'s Bureau of Criminal Investigation's Mike Quinn.  Quinn smelled a rat, issued a search warrant, and an investigation followed.   He absolutely reported suspected violations to authorities.  

Maybe the jurors were tired after three weeks and just wanted to wrap it up quick and go home (they deliberated for only two hours.) Or maybe they just couldn't see through the local "celebrity" of Mark Armstrong.  People believe Lindsay Lohan, too.  

Since they glossed over the first question, the jury never had to answer the judge's more important question, "Did Long get fired because of engaging in protected whistleblower activity?" 

The jury would almost certainly, and correctly, have answered that question "No." Long's case was murky for a myriad of reasons:  one country lawyer for the plaintiff was up against a well funded team of WSI and private attorneys, he presented a case that relied on thousands of pages of documents but did not present any outside witnesses, and Long damaged his own credibility on the witness stand.   

So at the end of the day, Long would have lost. 

Still, it is important to note, process matters.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Theres more to there coruption, like how they hire IMEs do give them the power to drop coverage on injured persons to protect oilcompanies from negligent actions!! I was one of many this has happened too!! My coverage was dropped based on a study done by an IME stating all my injuries were pre-exhisting, hense my family was left to hang.. Being unable to work, and haveing no coverage we sold our house and with the desperate help of my parrents, moved us back home.. Weve had to sell allmost all our posetions to pay bills, and Im currently being covered by medicade.. WSI has sutch a finacial power over the Drs, and hospitols they treat you as if nothing is wrong.. I saw to the termination of one of these Drs.. Now Im waiting for this to enter the judicial system, Tie up your time, your tax dollars, to try to hold them accountable.. Will I sucseed, probobly not.. What buys power? MONEY-- What does the big oil companies have a supply of, Your money!! There strength over WSI as a paying customer, puts pressure over the Drs with non payment of charges they deem unnessesary, so the Drs get susspended for doing so, so in turn the Drs try everything to get out of dealing with a WSI patient.. AND THERE GETTING AWAY WITH IT!!! WHAT IF I WAS YOUR SON?? YOUR BROTHER?? YOUR FATHER?? Our lives have been taken away from me and my family, and we stand here without a chance,becouse WSI is Government Based, and with them in the same bed as the oil companies.. Our injured Noth Dakotans get nothing in return, and forbid theres a death, they recive barely enough to pay for a casket!! Is that who you want cover your families incase of an on the job accident?? Do you want them working for companies that can legally fire you for being injured??? If you have a way of doing so, or helping to do so:: Please do it, and help us all get Rited the Wronged!!!

Gus Wynn said...

I wonder if North Dakota's corruption has much to do with the influx of energy companies who have seen fracking greenlighted in the state.

Right wing talk radio jocks like Sean Hannity tout North Dakota as an example of what we should do nationwide to bring unemployment down and increase energy production.

What they don't mention is that ND is the only state that has nationalized banking, catering to farmers and small businesses to keep the state's economy moving. Also fracking doesn't create jobs as much as it stovepipes profits...