Judge delays trial decision on workers comp conspiracy charge
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A judge said he expects to decide next week whether the director of North Dakota's workers compensation agency and its top fraud investigator will go on trial for a felony conspiracy charge.
Sandy Blunt, the chief executive officer of Workforce Safety and Insurance, and Romi Leingang, director of the agency's special investigations unit, are charged with plotting to illegally use state driver's license photos for a WSI investigation.
Under North Dakota law, driver's license photos are not public records, although the Department of Transportation allows the workers compensation agency to use them for limited purposes.
In this case, Blunt and Leingang are accused of using photos to root out the identity of a former WSI employee who was distributing information about how much agency workers were paid.
The DOT protested when a state auditor unearthed information about the probe. Shannon Henke, a Highway Patrolman who investigated the case, said he did not believe the former employee committed any crime by distributing the pay data.
South Central District Judge Donald Jorgensen delayed a decision Friday over whether to order a trial for Blunt and Leingang after presiding over a preliminary hearing that lasted more than five hours. Henke was the only witness.
Jorgensen ordered lawyers in the case to submit written arguments focusing on the legal definitions affecting the disclosure of driver's license photos. They are due at 4 p.m. Monday.
Jorgensen said he intended to rule on the trial issue by Friday, and decide a request by Leingang's attorney, Tim Purdon, of Bismarck, to dismiss the charge against his client.
Purdon and Blunt's lawyer, Michael Hoffman, of Bismarck, declined comment after the hearing. Purdon has said charges were not warranted against his client because she was acting under orders from her boss, Blunt.
Illegal use of driver's license photos is a felony, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The WSI investigation, allegedly ordered by Blunt, focused on current and former employees who were suspected of mailing out information about the salaries of WSI employees. The information was sent by e-mail and regular mail in February 2006, Henke testified during Friday's hearing.
Henke said the information included only WSI employees' names and their salaries, and did not include Social Security numbers or information that could be used in identity theft.
Under questioning from Cynthia Feland, an assistant Burleigh County state's attorney, Henke said he did not believe disseminating the information was a crime.
Blunt at first claimed the e-mail was "spam," a slang term for unwanted mail. Employees got subsequent e-mail messages warning that the missive not be opened, because of the risk it might carry a computer software virus.
Blunt later vowed to track down the mailer using all the resources at the agency's disposal, Henke said.
Two WSI investigators, Leingang and Todd Flanagan, took a book of six photos and displayed them to employees of the Mandan public library and a Bismarck branch post office in an attempt to identify the mailer, Henke said.
The pay information had been sent both by e-mail and regular mail. Information on the e-mail was used to trace the source to the Mandan library. Packets of information that were sent by U.S. mail had a postage meter stamp from the office in Bismarck's Northbrook Mall.
At least two photos were taken from Department of Transportation driver's license records in compiling the book. There was conflicting testimony Friday about how many driver's license photos were used, and Henke said two photos may not have been shown to anyone outside WSI.
Henke quoted Flanagan as being troubled by the assignment, and said he told Leingang he did not think it was proper.
Later, when Blunt identified the mailer as Jerry Becker, a WSI employee who had recently retired, Blunt demanded that an investigator go to Becker's home and confront him. Henke quoted WSI investigator Kelvin Zimmer as telling Leingang the request was out of bounds.
WSI officials made his investigation difficult, Henke said. During one interview at the agency's headquarters with another WSI investigator, Tammy Gimbel, agency lawyer Robin Forward insisted on sitting in, Henke said.
The trooper said Forward later demanded that Henke inform him whenever Henke came into the building. Forward was among the spectators at Friday's hearing, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. At one point during the hearing, he passed a note to Purdon.
Henke said he asked to see Blunt himself, but was told the CEO was too busy and to make an appointment later.