Saturday, October 27, 2007


(See my blog of December 12, 2006 entitled: "It's All About Leadership" that was published in The Fargo Forum on December 12, 2006.)

The chaos at WSI (Workforce Safety & Insurance) during the week of October 22, 2007:

--Conspiracy charges against Executive Director Sandy Blunt and Special Investigations Director Romi Leingang were dropped. They returned to work

--WSI attorney Jodi Bjornson accused the Burleigh County state’s attorney of defamation.

--Four WSI employees requested “whistleblower” protection.

--The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation seized a personal journal of a WSI employee.

My observations and questions about these events based on my 40 years experience as a Secret Service agent in Minneapolis, Minnnesota and Chicago, Illinois, senior business executive at the Star Tribune newspaper, and organizational consultant specializing in leadership and culture change:

1. In April 2007, Blunt was charged with two counts of misapplication of funds for allegedly misspending about $18,000 in WSI funds. Those charges seemed political to me and were rightly dismissed by a judge. It is an embarrassment for the state’s attorney when their case cannot survive a preliminary hearing. Why was this frivolous charge brought?

2. Blunt and Leingang were charged with conspiracy to disclose confidential driver’s license photos. That charge survived a preliminary hearing, to my surprise: I saw an effort to put together a photo array, not to disclose confidential information. Last week this charge was dismissed. Why was it brought? Why was it dropped?

The Fargo Forum quoted Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Cynthia Feland: “…WSI witnesses have come forward with candor not previously offered…..” And, “I just wish people would have been candid in the beginning.” As I read, I imagined that someone at WSI had lied.

Bjornson, the person referred to, said she was defamed by Feland. She said her testimony was consistent in two depositions. The Bismarck Tribune quoted Burleigh County State’s Attorney Richard Riha: “It is the state’s position that Ms. Bjornson gave consistent testimony at both her April 17, 2007, and October 15, 2007 depositions.

Does this mean that Feland’s comments were incorrect? Did she try to blame Bjornson for her failure to properly investigate the case?

3. Four WSI employees requested “whistleblower” status to protect them from retaliation by Blunt. Are the requests for protection and new charges of wrongdoing (seemingly petty, frivolous, and late in the process, calling into question the employee’s credibility) an effort to protect the requestors from being accountable for their actions at WSI?

Subordinates often try to sabotage their bosses. If you try to destroy your boss, you best succeed or you will be gone instead. Is it possible that the worst villains at WSI are not Blunt and his followers but others acting from political motives?

Leadership at WSI needs to enforce their code of conduct without fear. People who sabotage leadership should be fired. Whistle-blower protection should go to those truly deserving of such protection. In any case, those employees would be wise to update their resumes. They will never be happy at WSI again.

4. Why would the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation search a WSI executive’s office in search of a personal journal that outlined thoughts about how to remove an elected official from office? The tactics strike me as Gestapo-like. Who called them? Which state’s attorney approved the warrant? What was the justification?

Do not citizens have the right to use lawful means to remove public officials? Is to do so a “plot” or “conspiracy?” I’d consider it a strategy to achieve a political goal.

It is good to remember that chaos always comes to order and it does so quickly. It will do so at WSI. People should avoid hasty decisions and actions; instead, let the dust settle and then assess the reality they have to deal with.

WSI is mean, petty, and the harm done to people will never heal completely. Whatever Blunt’s mistakes, I don’t like how the law has been used in this workplace political intrigue. I hope Blunt succeeds. My experience tells me, however, that WSI will require a major change in leadership (top to bottom) to renew trust and credibility. If so, I hope all those who created this situation will be identified and replaced.

I believe that the biggest concern for citizens is not the soap-opera at WSI but the conduct of the Burleigh County State’s Attorney. I hope someone asks some tough questions. They’ve wasted taxpayers money and the court’s time in bringing inappropriate charges and charges best handled by the WSI Board and the political process, damaged the lives and reputations of Blunt, Bjornson, and others unnecessarily, and acted in ways that call into question their motivations, capability, and stewardship of government power. Voters should ask if the Burleigh County State’s Attorney has served the law and the county well.