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Attorney general is asked to take over future WSI inquiries

FARGO -- A local prosecutor has asked the North Dakota attorney general to take over any future investigations or prosecutions involving the troubled state workers' compensation program.

FARGO -- A local prosecutor has asked the North Dakota attorney general to take over any future investigations or prosecutions involving the troubled state workers' compensation program.

The request by Richard Riha, the Burleigh County state's attorney, was prompted by lawyers representing two agency employees they said suffered retaliation despite asking for whistle-blowers' legal protection. One of the whistle-blowers was fired Wednesday without explanation.

Riha said his office had a possible conflict of interest in investigating Workforce Safety and Insurance because the agency's spokesman, Mark Armstrong, also serves as a Burleigh County commissioner.

In another development Thursday, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued a legal opinion that Gov. John Hoeven lacks the authority to remove members of the WSI board of directors. The opinion prompted some calls for a special legislative session to address problems at the agency.

Riha's office had prosecuted Sandy Blunt, fired Thursday as executive director of the agency, involving the misapplication of public property, a charge that was dismissed.

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Following up on that case, criminal investigators confiscated a journal kept by Armstrong that described discussions by WSI employees and Blunt supporters plotting to oust Riha and thwart the investigation. The plot, which involved a petition drive, never materialized.

"Given the tone of the journal and the fact that Mr. Armstrong is a Burleigh County Commissioner, we have determined that it would not be appropriate for our office to engage in any new investigations or prosecutions of alleged criminal conduct at WSI," Riha wrote Stenehjem.

Retaliation against whistle-blowers who act in good faith is illegal under state law.

Todd Flanagan, a WSI investigator, was fired Wednesday for reasons the agency has not explained publicly. Hoeven called on the board to explain the action, and said WSI should not retaliate against whistle-blowers.

Flanagan was provided no documentation for his dismissal and was told there was no longer an "effective employment relationship," his lawyer, Mike Geiermann, wrote Riha Thursday when asking for an investigation in what could be the first opportunity to enforce the state's whistle-blower protection law.

Earlier, Jim Long, WSI's chief of support services, was placed on paid leave after he was interviewed by investigators exploring possible illegal activity within the agency

Stenehjem's opinion that the governor cannot remove WSI board members - a finding that reaffirmed the conclusion of Hoeven's legal staff - prompted workers' advocates to call for a special session to eliminate the board and place the embattled agency back under the governor's control.

Long is among those who want a special session to eliminate the WSI board. Firing Blunt doesn't go far enough, he said.

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"The board has been pretty adversarial about what's happened," Long said. "This doesn't fix the problem."

Hoeven supports an initiated measure to place the agency back under the governor, but does not support a special session, spokesman Don Canton said.

"We need to get the board to solve the problems over at WSI," he said. "They're moving in the right direction."

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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