Blunt’s trial to begin todayBISMARCK — Opening arguments in the criminal trial for the former executive director of the North Dakota workers’ compensation agency are scheduled to get under way today in Bismarck, weather permitting.
By: Janell Cole, N.D. Capitol Bureau
BISMARCK — Opening arguments in the criminal trial for the former executive director of the North Dakota workers’ compensation agency are scheduled to get under way today in Bismarck, weather permitting.
A jury for the case against Charles “Sandy” Blunt was picked Thursday.
Blunt was executive director and CEO of Workforce Safety and Insurance from May 2004 until December 2007, when he was forced out.
The charges against the 44-year-old are two felony counts of misapplication of entrusted property.
In Count I, prosecutors allege that Blunt had no authority to spend more than $4,000 of WSI funds for gift certificates to WSI employees and $7,000 in WSI funds for refreshments, trinkets, costumes and entertainment at staff meetings. He also spent money on lunches and trips for legislators. If convicted on that count, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
In Count II, he is charged with approving more than $7,000 in illegal bonuses to three top administrators at the agency: Mark Armstrong ($3,360), John Halvorson ($1,388) and Jodi Bjornson ($2,452). A conviction would carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $5,000 fine.
Prosecutors will argue that expenditures in both counts were illegal because they represented purely private benefit to the employees and did not have a public purpose. While state law has some exceptions to such restrictions, the exceptions are only legal if certain criteria are met.
For instance, no state employee can get more than $1,000 in performance bonuses a year, and a formal bonus program has to have been set up in the agency. There was none at WSI, according to prosecutors.
Allegations that unlawful spending had taken place first showed up in a state auditor’s office performance audit of WSI in October 2006.
That led to a probe by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and Blunt was charged in April 2007.
In August 2007, a district judge dismissed the charges after a preliminary hearing, saying the state had to show Blunt personally profited from the expenditures. Prosecutors appealed, and the state Supreme Court reinstated the charges in June, saying the laws Blunt is alleged to have broken do not require showing that he personally benefitted.
The trial will be in the Burleigh County Courthouse. South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick is presiding. The prosecutors are Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorneys Cynthia Feland and Lloyd Suhr. Blunt’s attorney is Michael Hoffman of Bismarck.
Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Jamestown Sun.