Man helped bring down BluntEd Christensen is a slightly built 67-year-old widower living alone in a sparsely furnished semi-basement apartment near Bismarck’s Kirkwood Mall.
By: Janell Cole , N.D. Capitol Bureau
BISMARCK — Ed Christensen is a slightly built 67-year-old widower living alone in a sparsely furnished semi-basement apartment near Bismarck’s Kirkwood Mall.
Forced out of a career in construction work 11 years ago by job-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he hardly presents the image of a giant-killer.
And yet this retired laborer may be as responsible as anyone for last week’s conviction of Charles “Sandy” Blunt, the former Workforce Safety and Insurance executive, on a felony charge of misspending agency funds. Blunt was “a powerful man in charge of one of the largest agencies in state government,” prosecutors told jurors.
It was Christensen who two years ago wrote to Burleigh County State’s Attorney Richard Riha and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem asking them to explore criminal charges against WSI officials.
They did, and Blunt was charged in April 2006. A jury convicted him Friday and he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
After the verdict, Assistant State’s Attorney Cynthia Feland pointed to Christensen’s efforts when a reporter asked the “true motive” for charging Blunt.
“We received a letter from an individual who indicated they felt there was criminal activity,” she said, confirming it was Christensen’s letter.
“It was,” she said. “And that letter was sent off for further follow-up.”
Christensen’s Dec. 6, 2006, letter listed numerous state laws, administrative rules and constitutional sections that state auditors said WSI officials had violated in awarding contracts, spending for gifts and refreshments for employees and other instances. Auditors presented the report to legislators on Nov. 29, 2006.
“I believe that the misuse of public monies and the unlawful actions identified by the state Auditor’s Office constitute crimes and I would like to see those at WSI responsible for these actions punished. I am asking for your office to investigate the state auditor’s findings, determine whether crimes have been committed and bring criminal charges against those responsible,” Christensen wrote.
He admits a lawyer helped him write it, but won’t say who.
Feland said the Bureau of Criminal Investigation started an investigation.
“They went to the auditor’s office, collected documents, they collected additional documents that were not collected by the state auditor’s office, they interviewed individuals,” Feland said. “They (BCI) brought the case to us for review and when that case was reviewed, the decision was made that this is what the charges would be and that our office would file those charges.”
But first it looked like nothing would happen. Stenehjem wrote to Christensen saying he can’t start an investigation at a citizen’s behest. Riha forwarded Christensen’s letter to Stenehjem for Stenehjem’s “review and consideration.”
Said a disgusted Christensen at the time, “Like the potato’s hot.”
Stenehjem said Monday that eventually Riha asked him to put BCI on the case and he did. Christensen said Riha’s office notified him six or eight weeks later that an investigation had begun.
Though obviously satisfied with the outcome, Christensen expresses no glee. Of his efforts, he says, “It’s not personal” toward Blunt.
On Sunday, he said, “I feel sorry for Sandy Blunt and his family. I also feel sorry for all the injured workers and their families at this time of year.”
Christensen’s interest in WSI started with his own case. He developed pulmonary disease working in construction at coal-fired power plants northwest of Bismarck due to fumes and dust from an epoxy mixture and probably asbestos exposure.
“I kept on getting sick,” he said, and finally a doctor diagnosed it.
When he made a WSI claim, “It took them one year and 30 days to give me one dime,” he said.
Eventually, WSI awarded him wage replacement benefits, which ended when he reached retirement age.
He’s been watch dogging WSI for about five years and is a ubiquitous observer and critic at legislative meetings, WSI Board meetings and other events involving the agency. He was instrumental in the successful initiated measure to return WSI to the governor’s cabinet.
Bruce Furness, interim executive director, has encountered Christensen many times, starting with Furness’ job interview and hiring at a board meeting last March.
“Tenacious would be a good description,” Furness said Monday. “He really believes in what he’s doing.”
Cole works for Forum
Communications Co., which
owns The Jamestown Sun