North Dakota GOP senators have moved to repudiate a proposal, floated by House Republicans, to allow a $50,000 “party fund” for the state’s workers compensation agency. The House Republican majority leader said he did not expect it to survive.
Sen. Nick Hacker, R-Grand Forks, offered an amendment April 5 to bar the state Workforce Safety and Insurance agency from using the fund to pay for employee gifts and parties, or meals and trips by state legislators.
Senators agreed to incorporate the proposal in legislation that changes how the agency’s independent board of directors is chosen. Under current law, the WSI board, which has the power to hire and fire the agency’s top administrator, may pick some of its own board members.
The fund is included in the workers compensation agency’s budget bill, which the House approved this week. Senators disagreed with its provisions, and a group of three House members and three senators will be appointed to work out the bill’s final details.
Hacker’s amendment says the fund may be used for education and training expenses of the agency’s chief executive officer and members of its board. It also may be used for service awards and employee honors that are allowed in other executive branch agencies.
“There is no reason, in my mind, that (Workforce Safety and Insurance) should be treated differently than anybody else,” he said.
Rep. Frank Wald, R-Dickinson, drafted a provision for WSI’s budget bill to create the fund after a state audit questioned $18,300 in agency expenditures on restaurant gift cards, flowers, helium-filled balloons and bottled water, as well as meals and conference trips for legislators.
Newspaper editorials were harshly critical of the fund, with the Grand Forks Herald calling it “a salute to pork and spite.”
“House Republicans seem to be declaring that there’ll be no more second-guessing of lawmakers’ perks,” the Herald said.
Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, the House majority leader, said in an interview it was “probably likely” the fund will not survive further legislative scrutiny.
“I think there’s a desire to have uniformity among all agencies and WSI, and I think what this issue has done is, it has uncovered some practices that happened, and people need to take a look at that,” Berg said.
Hacker said the newspaper and radio talk show criticism prodded senators to move quickly to distance themselves from the idea.
“Obviously, reading the papers, but also … just talking to other senators, they kind of believed, as well as I did, that the fund was not appropriate,” Hacker said.
Separately, the Legislature’s Democratic floor leaders, Rep. Merle Boucher, D-Rolette, and Sen. David O’Connell, D-Lansford, sent a letter to Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, asking for information about Sandy Blunt, the top administrator for North Dakota’s Workforce Safety and Insurance agency.
Blunt worked for the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation before starting his North Dakota job in April 2004. A man he formerly supervised in Ohio, Terrence Gasper, pleaded guilty last year to a federal racketeering charge, and to state charges of money laundering and failing to report gifts.
Gasper was the agency’s chief financial officer. He had been taking payoffs to award state investment contracts to people he favored, authorities said.
Blunt spoke about the Gasper case at a Workforce Safety and Insurance board of directors’ meeting last September, vehemently denying any wrongdoing.
“I have never in my life participated in corruption,” Blunt said then. “I would never participate. I will not tolerate it. I would report my own mother for it.”
In their letter, Boucher and O’Connell said two Ohio investigators had recently visited North Dakota to interview Blunt.
A spokeswoman for Dann did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Mark Armstrong, a WSI spokesman, said Blunt had no comment.
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