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WSI director is fired

BISMARCK -- Sandy Blunt's stormy 3 1/2 years at the helm of Workforce Safety and Insurance came to an end Thursday morning with the WSI board's 8-2 vote to terminate his job.

BISMARCK -- Sandy Blunt's stormy 3 ½ years at the helm of Workforce Safety and Insurance came to an end Thursday morning with the WSI board's 8-2 vote to terminate his job.

The motion included offering him nine months of severance pay, health insurance and retirement contributions and the board chairman called the parting a mutual agreement.

Blunt, executive director and chief executive officer at WSI since May 2004, has weathered state audits and evaluations that blasted his leadership, survived three felony criminal counts that were dismissed and saw several employees seek whistleblower status from the attorney general after they reported suspected wrongdoing by Blunt and others at the agency.

WSI is the state workers' compensation agency.

The vote came barely hour after an early-morning meeting between board Chairman Bob Indvik of Bottineau and two of Gov. John Hoeven's senior staff, in which they told Indvik Hoeven wanted WSI to have a new executive director.

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Hoeven has no legal power over WSI, and Indvik gave little credit to the governor's demand when interviewed later.

He told the governor's aides at the 7 a.m. meeting in a local restaurant that "we were going to address the subject" anyway. The two were Hoeven's chief of staff, Ron Rauschenberger, and legal counsel, Ryan Bernstein.

Indvik said Blunt's exit had become "inevitable" because of questions whether "he could remain effective." The board did make its determination based upon the relevant facts and not because of any particular impetus of any particular individual or any particular agency.

He said the influence of "different factors that causes you to believe whether or not a person will remain in that position and be effective," he said.

He also blamed the "media frenzy" surrounding Blunt, especially after he came back to work following the dismissal of criminal charges.

Indvik would not use the term "fired."

"We mutually agreed to separate," he said.

Indvik said he saw Blunt at the WSI office about a half hour before the board meeting started at 8:30 a.m. and told him his employment status would be discussed. Blunt said he would agree to step aside, then left the building for good.

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There was no comment available from Blunt on Thursday. Mark Armstrong told reporters Blunt would not accept calls asking about his firing, only that "he's looking forward to tremendous opportunities for the future and spending time this Christmas season with his family."

The two board members who voted against the Blunt motion were labor representatives Terry Curl of Mandan and Ed Grossbauer of Grand Forks, who opposed its inclusion of nine months' severance. That was too much, Curl said after the meeting. Grossbauer was attending his first meeting.

A state law prohibits state employees from receiving severance pay but Armstrong said the board relied on a subsection that allows exceptions "to encourage an employee to retire or resign if the resulting departure will increase agency efficiencies or reduce expenses."

Some critics of Blunt and WSI doubt the executive director's exit would result in much positive change at the agency because the board plays a big role in WSI's continuing problems.

"It doesn't fix anything because the board will just appoint another Sandy Blunt," said Jim Long, chief of support services at the agency, who was recently suspended from his job. Long was barred from the building shortly after he reported suspected wrongdoing by Blunt and sought whistle-blower protection this fall.

"Until the board is abolished, it's a conduit for corruption," he said "The governor needs to stand up and call for the resignation of all board members." That goes for senior staff, too, he said, which includes him.

Ed Christensen, a workers' advocate and WSI critic from Bismarck, also condemned the severance package.

"This board has got to go," Christensen said. "They're the ones that created this monster."

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Both Long and Todd Flanagan, another whistle-blower who was fired Wednesday, were at the meeting, which is open to the public. Flanagan's attorney, Mike Geierman, was also at part of the meeting.

Hoeven has demanded that WSI explain how it could dismiss Flanagan after he sought whistle-blower status from the attorney general.

"WSI must not retaliate against any whistle-blower," he said in a prepared statement.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who is seeking the Democratic endorsement to run against Hoeven for governor, said Hoeven waited too long to act in calling Thursday for Blunt's removal.

"The agency was spiraling into more and more mismanagement and the governor permitted that to go on too long," Mathern said. He criticized the severance package, which he said will exceed $100,000. If someone is fired for not doing their job right, "why give him a ton of money?"

But Indvik said Blunt did nothing wrong and he "feels terrible" about voting to let him go. He said Blunt had done everything the board had asked of him and that he considers Blunt a friend.

John Halvorson, strategic executive and chief of employer services, was named interim executive director while the board advertises for a replacement. Halvorson said he will not apply.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.

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