November 12, 2010
Bakke continued his examination of Billie Peltz after the Veteran's Day holiday.
Bakke: Regarding your whistleblower complaint, you said you filed because you were afraid of retaliation because you had gone to BCI?
Bakke: That's not correct.
Bakke: Didn't you file because Long told you he planned to?
Peltz: We had discussed it and filed at the same time.
Bakke established that Long provided her with the legal statutes regarding whistleblower protection and that they went to the AG's office together and that her request was similar to Long's.
Bakke: Is it your testimony that Mike Quinn stated a request for protection from retaliation would be reasonable?
Peltz: I talked with Mike Quinn. I have no specific memory of the exact language. That was three years ago.
Peltz: Armstrong went on a search for who was responsible for information given to BCI. That shows the lengths they would go to. Armstrong did alot of things that were retaliation, whether on his own behalf or on behalf of WSI.
Bakke: Why are you accusing WSI of Armstrong's conduct?
Peltz: Because that's how Armstrong worked.
Bakke: You say these are the lengths against employees who provide adverse information pertaining to the agency?
Peltz: Armstrong is their bottom dweller to make people look bad. These are the lengths they will go to to make people and to discredit people.
Bakke then went through the four items listed in Peltz' whistleblower complaint. They were: misuse of Spencer's sick leave; HB 1050 4 + 4 increases; nepotism; and deliberate circumvention of open records law.
Bakke: Regarding Spencer's sick leave, you verify that was August, September 2006?
Bakke: You knew of this over one year?
Bakke: In August, September 2006, did you go to law enforcement?
Peltz: No. I didn't go to BCI. They asked me. I went to Blunt and he did nothing with it.
Bakke: The AG didn't request you to do this?
Peltz: After I gave information to BCI, I knew Blunt was coming back and I feared retaliation.
Bakke: Did Blunt ever threaten to terminate you?
Peltz: That is not relevant. They created a hostile work environment.
Bakke: Did Halvorson ever threaten to terminate you?
Peltz: I told you. They don't have to threaten to terminate you. They created a hostile work environment.
Bakke: Answer my question. Did Blunt or Halvorson ever threaten to terminate you?
Bakke established that the Spencer sick leave and moving expenses issue had been reported in the audit report and had been published by the media and it was not something new. Bakke turned to the 4% pay increase. Peltz said she put that in again because she feared retaliation.
Bakke: The retaliation never happened.
Peltz: I don't know how you can say that.
Bakke: You weren't terminated.
Peltz: Yes, I was in March of 2008. How do you know they can't retaliate months later?
Bakke: Did anyone tell you you'd be fired for filing a whistleblower complaint or demoted?
Peltz: My responsibilities were diminished. I told you these four items caused me grief and I did go through my chain of command.
Bakke then turned to her complaint of nepotism.
Peltz: Look, the reason I filed this was Blunt was being brought back and I had disclosed this information to BCI. The first week he was back, he was digging to find information to discredit me. His side drawer notes were prepared his first week back.
Bakke: No. He testified he did that in July.
Peltz: Wahlin told me he'd done that his first week back.
Bakke: Did you have personal knowledge that Armstrong did not appropriately handle the open records requests?
Peltz: I heard about it from others.
Bakke: So it was office talk?
Peltz: May have been. Just like most of the things we're talking about. I did have knowledge, not only from Long, but I can't remember three years ago specifically.
Bakke: Did you have personal knowledge?
Bakke then turned to some handwritten notes Peltz had made on September 6, 2006. Bakke repeatedly tried to pin her down as to whether 9-6-06 was the exact date she had written those notes. She kept saying it was the same day or the day after. The Judge finally told Bakke to move on, that she'd answered the question. The notes said, "I asked Sandy if we had an end date for Dave. Sandy responded that he guessed it would be when Dave's sick leave was exhausted." Her notes also said that, "Sandy said he would contact Dave and get a letter from him." And she had noted that Spencer's resignation was emailed to Sandy that same day.
Bakke: So your notes show Blunt followed your recommendation?
Peltz: Not necessarily. This thing started with Blunt wanting to terminate him. Then he allowed him to resign.
Bakke then handed Peltz an email and asked her whether she'd seen it before.
Peltz: It's a picture of a dog. I remember sending him a picture of a dog.
Bakke: The subject says, who's a big sweetie?
Peltz: Yes, that's the subject of the dog.
Bakke: "Little Krishna wants to give Jimmy Wimmy a kissy wissy". Is this a typical email you'd send to your boss?
Peltz: I'd send it to my boss. I'd send it to a friend. This dog was trying to get adopted. I don't see what's wrong with that.
Bakke then turned again to the issue of applying external pressure on WSI. Peltz said she knew Long was talking to the media saying Halvorson was a bad leader and knew he was talking to Chad Nodland at northdecoder.
Bakke: As HR manager, didn't you have some responsibility if you knew someone in the organization was going to say bad things to the media?
Peltz: I don't think that's illegal.
Bakke: You knew that he'd be saying things that weren't true about the agency and your responsibility was to protect the agency from that.
Peltz: If this was an organization that worked properly, that would be true.
Bakke: Regarding Grinsteinner, the day of the journal search, did you discuss problems about Armstrong and open records?
Peltz: I don't recall.
Bakke: Do you recall Grinsteinner saying she was going to go in after work and see what he's been doing?
Peltz: I don't recall.
Bakke: Wouldn't that concern you?
Peltz: I wouldn't expect her to do that. It may well have been hypothetical.
Bakke: You were interviewed by Forward and corrected his notes?
Peltz: I may have, yeah.
Bakke then produces Forward's notes, which was information provided by Peltz two weeks after the search of Armstrong's office. The Forward report stated that Billie's first memory of the issue was a conversation with Jim telling her that he knew Armstrong was actively trying to discredit him. She said the first time she understood the journal existed was when Jim called and said Blunt and Leingang's charges had been dropped and then said the front desk person had called him because the highway patrol were not able to execute a search warrant. It said that she believed someone else found the journal besides Long, but she wouldn't give the name to protect that person's identity. It said Billie said Jim did not search for the journal, it found him.
Peltz: That's hearsay. I was told this by Mr. Long.
Bakkes produced the deposition where Peltz had said Long told her he and Kay Grinsteinner found the journal.
Peltz: At the time I gave that deposition, that is what I recall. Now that I look at these notes, it refreshes my memory. I would rely more on what I told Rob Forward right after the fact rather then what I said several years later.
Bakke: You agree you've given two different versions?
Bakke: You don't know which is the truth?
Peltz: No, I don't.
Bakke established that Blunt minimized his contact with Peltz and that he never complained to her regarding filing for whistleblower protection. He said since she was fired in March of 2008 and Blunt was gone from the agency by December of 2007, her fear of Blunt's retaliation was misplaced.
Peltz: I don't know why you're asking this. I never sued the State of North Dakota.
Bakke established that Peltz continued to be in contact with Long after he was put on leave and that she was aware Long was making comments to the media regarding improper claims handling and denials. She acknowledged that Long did not handle claims and that she had advised Long to stop talking to the press.
Bakke: Did Long inform you of his anonymous email account?
Peltz: He may have informed me.
Bakke turned to her deposition. "Did Jim tell you about his anonymous email account?" "Yes."
Peltz: You must understand Mr. Bakke, it was very stressful at that time...
Bakke cut her off and told her that Mr. Tuntland could ask her more about that topic if he chose.
Bakke: At the time of your termination in March of 2008, you were given an option for resignation or termination?
Bakke next turned to the Connolly report and established it was required by the governor and that it was dated March 5, 2008, just a week before Peltz' termination. The report said few employees have confidence in the HR department and it was unsuccessful in engendering a climate of fairness and trust. Peltz agreed with that, saying WSI as an organization was never successful in that role.
Bakke: Do you agree that during that time period you were there, that there was no confidence in the HR department?
Peltz: No one told me that. I had introduced a whole new process for performance audits.
Bakke: You disagreed with Connolly?
Peltz: I don't know what Connolly thought but the processes were good.
Bakke: Connolly said, "HR is the last place employees would go to for redress or support."
Peltz: He had a select group of people he met with.
Bakke: It reads senior management and CEO's failure of judgment rendered human resources irrelevant to WSI's operations in the eyes of the workforce. Recommend new leadership in HR.
Peltz: When Connolly came in, based on his interaction with Halvorson, I thought they were trying to stack this thing.
Bakke: Even though it was ordered by the governor?
Peltz: That's what I thought. (Peltz repeatedly said she had not sued the state, the whole thing was not worth her time, and she was there to answer questions because the lawyers required her to be there)
Plaintiff's attorney Tom Tuntland began his redirect.
Tuntland established that Peltz had said she was not being consulted after Halvorson became interim CEO and referred to her deposition which said she was then reporting to a peer of hers versus someone at a higher level.
Tuntland: Based on that, did Halvorson interfere with HR decisions before he became interim CEO?
Peltz: Yes. If there was something he didn't agree with, he would go to Blunt to try to persuade him of whatever he wanted. He didn't come to me.
Tuntland established that after Long was suspended, his duties were assigned to various people at WSI. Supervision of Billie's position was assigned not to the executive team, but one of her lateral peers, Rob Forward.
Peltz confirmed that she had talked with board chair Indvik regarding nepotism because general counsel Jodi Bjornson had directed her to do so. She was especially concerned because there was an occasion when she was investigating Halvorson's wife's employees and Halvorson got involved. Halvorson's wife was head of a department. There was an issue that needed investigating and Peltz had given her recommendation to Blunt. Halvorson disagreed with her assessment, complained to Blunt, and caused her problems.
Tuntland brought up the email about the dog. Peltz said that the intent was that the dog needed a home and Jim Long was a sucker for stray animals and she wanted him to take the dog in.
Tuntland asked her why she didn't like Halvorson. She said she didn't trust him.
Tuntland asked whether Peltz had ever made reports to Blunt regarding improper renumeration to Dave Spencer. Peltz said, yes and that Blunt pushed back saying that he would do what he wanted to do.
Peltz said that Long did not say it was improper for employees to talk with legislators, but she did not recall discussing concerns about WSI employees writing letters for others to sign. Regarding the Chamber of Commerce meeting, she recalled that Long was concerned with the content of what was discussed.
Tuntland established that Peltz had private conversations with Long regarding Halvorson, but that in her role as human resources director, many people came to her with concerns about their bosses, and she tried to keep those conversations confidential.
Peltz was aware Long had gone to the press, but did not know if he had done so before he was suspended.
Peltz said that when she met with Halvorson regarding his concerns of a perception of an improper relationship with Long, that she was surprised by the question and confirmed that Halvorson said if things didn't change he would have to change her supervisor. This discussion was held in May of 2007, but was not brought up in June, July, August, September, October, or November when Long was put on paid leave. Peltz said she thought Long would probably never be back.
Peltz said that there was never anything sexually inappropriate between them and that she did recall having two pedicures with Long.
She then said that she filed her whistleblower protection request both because Jim did and because she feared retaliation.
She next was asked about Mark Armstrong and said her office was right next door. His voice carried very well and she could often hear him talking.
Tuntland established that Peltz did not talk to BCI's Quinn until required to do so and asked why not. She said she was there to do a job and not bring attention to things, that she went through her chain of command, and made her concerns known to Sandy Blunt.
Tuntland established that the time between her talking to BCI's Quinn on Friday, was just days before filing her whistleblower protection complaint on Monday morning.
Tuntland established that Kay Grinsteinner did not report to Billie Peltz, but rather to the board.
Tuntland confirmed that Blunt told Peltz he was going to terminate Spencer.
Tuntland asked whether she'd advised Long to stop talking to the press, before or after he was suspended. She thought after.
Tuntland then moved into reasons why she thought the Connolly report was not objective. The report referred to critical issues over the past five years. Peltz had only been there 2 1/2 years when the report was issued. Tuntland asked specifically about "there was utter silence during a 2005 policyholder services reorganization". Peltz said that the chief of that department was reorganizing when she was hired on, but it caused morale issues because people had to reinterview for their own jobs, so there was no job security and they were applying for jobs for which they were not qualified. She talked with the head of policyholder services and the CEO, but could not force them to make changes. She did however put together job descriptions which forced them to interview people and not just select people. She said the manager who started the reorganization was Dave Spencer.
The report says that there was a belief that it was not Peltz' job to tell the CEO what to do.
Peltz: Connolly was very confrontational to me. I finally said it is not my role to tell the CEO how to do his job. If I give my two cents, I have to accept his decision.
The report also stated "the former CEO's failure of judgment in senior management selections and the department's lack of leadership rendered the HR department irrelevant in the eyes of the workplace."
Tuntland: When you left at WSI, was HR the same as when you'd stepped in?
Peltz: No. I had improved alot of the processes.
Tuntland asked who had made the selection of Connolly and Associates to do the report. She said there was a committee, but she didn't know who was on that committee.
Tuntland: Regarding Denise Bachler, did she tend to complain about supervisors?
Tuntland: About the 4% pay increases. The Attorney General had written an opinion that WSI employees were to receive the 4% pay increases?
Tuntland: Did Halvorson come up with an alternative method of making pay increases?
Randy Bakke then conducted his recross of Peltz.
Bakke: The Connolly report talked about preferential treatment and adjustment of salaries. The preferential treatment was your treatment, wasn't it?
Peltz: That was approved by Sandy Blunt.
Bakke: You got an 18% increase. Are you aware that was the highest pay raise given out?
Bakke: And Jim Long went to bat for you.
Bakke: Do you assume that any report critical of you, you would think was not objective?
Bakke: You thought you were performing fine?
Peltz: Prior to the report, my performance reviews were fine.
Bakke: If staff feels the last person they could go to was human resources, wouldn't that person have to go?
Peltz: That's not black and white.
Bakke: Regarding your assignment of supervisor Rob Forward. Were you aware that Jodi Bjornson's plate was full with legal matters at the time?
Peltz: I'm not sure about that.
Bakke: Regarding the issue of Halvorson and Halvorson's wife, was there something wrong with Blunt listening to Halvorson's opinion?
Bakke: Blunt didn't want to do what you wanted to do.
Peltz: No. Blunt didn't want to do what the general counsel wanted him to do.
Bakke: Well, we'll ask the general counsel about that.
Bakke: Regarding Halvorson monitoring the situation between you and Long and did he come back in June through November, didn't Halvorson have alot on his plate besides monitoring you?
Peltz: I'm not sure.
Bakke: Regarding the chronology of Long talking to the press, you are aware he went to the press before his suspension. Let's go to your deposition.
Bakke established that Peltz said Long was talking to Nodland during the time of the Hutchings and Nallie investigations.
Bakke: You were critical of Blunt because he did not terminate Spencer but allowed him to resign, but you were given the same option.
Peltz: But he allowed him to string along and get sick pay and then he resigned.
Bakke then compared Long's whistleblower complaint with Peltz' and noted the only difference was Long's included a conspiracy to oust Burleigh County States Attorney Richard Riha.
Bakke: Did Long prepare your request.
Peltz: No, and Jim had another bullet item, other items too numerous to mention.