Former WSI director appeals convictionThe former director of workers’ compensation in North Dakota should have been acquitted of misspending public funds after a judge ruled that one $15,000 expense was not illegal, his attorney told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — The former director of workers’ compensation in North Dakota should have been acquitted of misspending public funds after a judge ruled that one $15,000 expense was not illegal, his attorney told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Sandy Blunt, who was dismissed in December 2007 as director of North Dakota’s Workforce Safety and Insurance agency, is appealing to the Supreme Court to order an acquittal of his felony conviction or grant him a new trial. The justices will rule later.
Prosecutors lumped five separate allegations against Blunt into a single felony charge that claimed he misused more than $41,000 during his tenure as WSI’s director, which lasted almost four years.
During Blunt’s trial, Judge Bruce Romanick excluded a $15,279 payment to a firefighters’ group, ruling that prosecutors had not proved it was an unauthorized expense.
Jurors convicted Blunt on the strength of the prosecutors’ remaining evidence, which outlined expenses for gift cards, meals and knickknacks for employees, and sick leave and relocation payments for an agency executive who was forced out of his job.
Blunt’s attorney, Michael Hoffman, argued Wednesday that Romanick’s ruling on the firefighters’ grant should have caused the state’s case to collapse.
Prosecutors wanted a Class B felony case, which requires the misuse of at least $10,000 and carries a maximum 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, Hoffman said.
Of the allegations against Blunt, only the firefighters’ grant was worth more than $10,000. If the remaining alleged crimes had been charged separately, each would have carried a maximum five-year prison term and $5,000 fine. Instead, they were lumped together to make their value greater than $10,000 and give prosecutors a shot at the harsher penalty.
Prosecutors “chose to charge it in this fashion, and I think they’re stuck with the results of charging it in that fashion,” Hoffman said.
Cynthia Feland, an assistant Burleigh County state’s attorney, said compiling the allegations into a single charge helped demonstrate Blunt’s spending patterns.
“That was why they were all charged as part of one, because they were all expenditures that were being made in what I guess you could classify as WSI’s normal course of business,” Feland said.
The firefighters’ grant was not necessary for the prosecution, Feland said. “But it was all part of the same course of conduct and manner of spending that was occurring under Mr. Blunt’s direction,” she said.
The justices quizzed Feland closely about the effect of Romanick’s decision to exclude the firefighters’ grant from the jury’s consideration.
Justice Daniel Crothers pointed out that Romanick described the grant as being akin to a separate charge against Blunt, and that Hoffman had asked for an acquittal before the judge agreed to exclude the grant. Feland put “a gloss on it that (Romanick) didn’t share,” Crothers said.
“The motion was to acquit, and (Romanick) itself was describing the granting of the motion as if this was a separate count,” Crothers said to Feland. “Why isn’t that a problem for you?”
Feland replied that Romanick explained his decision as if he was excluding evidence against Blunt. “The court is specifically referencing a piece of evidence, not the entire count,” Feland said.
Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said prosecutors laid out “a buffet” of allegations against Blunt, while hoping jurors would find they added up to more than $10,000 in misspent funds.
“Your bottom line is, as long as there was $10,000 left to find, it doesn’t make any difference whether (Romanick) dismissed this grant thing or not,” VandeWalle said to Feland.
Blunt, 44, was given a two-year deferred sentence last February, meaning his felony conviction will be dropped from his record if he does not violate any laws in that time. Blunt was also ordered to pay a $2,000 fine and perform 1,000 hours of community service.