Ohio Injured Workers Felt Pressure by Lawmakers, Businesses, Records Say

December 15, 2006

Employees at Ohio’s insurance fund for injured workers struggled with pushy lawmakers and threats by businesses to involve the governor as they decided premium rates for certain Ohio businesses, newly released documents show.

“Please note that employer may write to the Governor,” said one worker in an e-mail. “The senator’s office is now calling and asking for action,” noted another.

Inexplicable premium reductions for 27 Ohio businesses, revealed in a draft audit released last month, have become part of a state investigation into activity at the troubled Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

The bureau made public this week 335 pages of documents that it has provided as part of that probe. Among the documents were e-mails, letters and financial override documents that showed premium reductions.

The state’s legislative watchdog, Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe, has joined the probe _ asking as many as 10 lawmakers to explain their efforts on behalf of the companies.

Those who received letters from Bledsoe on Nov. 13 seeking information on their dealings with the bureau include: state Sens. Jeffry Armbruster, John Carey, Joy Padgett, Kirk Schuring and Lynn Wachtmann; and state Reps. Jennifer Garrison, Ron Hood, Jim Hoops, Bob Gibbs and Kevin DeWine, the No. 2 House Republican in the upcoming session. Former state Sen. Mark Mallory, now Cincinnati mayor, also was named in bureau documents.

Lawmakers have argued that it is part of their job to represent constituents’ interests with the bureau.

Bureau spokeswoman Nancy Smeltzer said most state agencies have a constituent affairs office set up for that purpose.

“It’s not unusual to get an e-mail asking, ‘Can you check into this for me?’ They want to respond to their constituents,” she said. “The issue here is that anybody should be able to get in there and look and see why a premium was changed. Without that, it is hard to tell what occurred.”

Armbruster, a suburban Cleveland Republican, also received a subpoena from state Inspector General Tom Charles in Armbruster’s capacity as a business owner who sought help from the bureau to reduce rates.

Charles has said he has sent subpoenas to multiple lawmakers and businesses as he seeks to determine whether political influence played a role in any of the reductions.

Armbruster has said he was acting solely as a businessman, not as an elected official, when he lobbied for better rates on his injured-worker insurance. He said he has always kept his business interests out of politics.

The audit, covering January 2003 through September 2005, found no written policies or procedures to determine when workers’ comp administrators would override the computer system to lower rates.

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