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Patrick Springer, Published July 30 2012

Whistleblower at WSI claims agency retaliated

BISMARCK – An employee of North Dakota’s workers’ compensation agency who blew the whistle on suspected wrongdoing is alleging she has suffered retaliation.

Barbara Frohlich filed a grievance with Workforce Safety and Insurance, the state workers’ compensation agency, alleging several instances of retaliation for her “whistle-blowing” actions.

Frohlich, who works as a liaison with medical providers who treat injured workers, filed an affidavit outlining the deletion of the record and what she portrayed as efforts by managers to whitewash the suspected crime.

She first made her allegations by filing an internal “fraud hotline” complaint last August and was frustrated by what she regarded as a response that sought to minimize or cover up improprieties, rather than resolve problems.

Ultimately, in April, she submitted a sworn statement detailing her allegations to criminal investigators. The results of that investigation have not yet been disclosed.

The purported retaliation, Frohlich said, included remarks from her supervisor made in a “curt and accusatory” tone, despite assurances from supervisors, including Bryan Klipfel, WSI’s director.

“I was assured on multiple occasions there would be no retaliation against me for filing the report,” Frohlich said in her grievance statement, which was filed Friday.

After repeated performance reviews that were glowing, Frohlich said her latest evaluation was more critical, though the reasons for her lower scores were not well documented, except for her failure to complete certain safety courses.

“My performance record is an open book,” Frohlich said in an interview Monday. “I’ve received good to excellent performance reviews that entire time,” since she was hired seven years ago.

“There’s no basis or documentation to support it,” she said of the lower evaluation scores in her most recent evaluation, which she received at the end of June.

“The only conclusion I can draw is that of reprisal,” she added.

In her complaint, Frohlich said she understood another employee was considering filing a retaliation grievance, but she did not name the employee.

Klipfel said he has not yet been able to review Frohlich’s grievance, and therefore could not offer a comment Monday. Policy allows up to five working days to review a grievance.

“We will review the material submitted by Barb, gather additional information and conduct an investigation according to our process,” he said in a statement.

If deemed necessary, an investigation must be completed within 30 days of the complaint. If no investigation is deemed necessary, a decision is due in 15 days.

Frohlich said her supervisor pointedly asked her what she was talking about with WSI’s medical director, Dr. Luis Vilella, following news reports that appeared in The Forum in February about her allegations involving the deleted record and a report that Vilella had twice been pressured to alter his medical reviews.

After the altercation, Klipfel wrote Frohlich to inform her that her supervisor, Thomas Solberg, director of medical services, had received a formal warning for his conduct and said the agency does not condone the behavior that she had described.

The deleted record at the center of Frohlich’s complaint involved an injured worker’s claim for mental health symptoms suffered from a workplace injury.

The worker has since said the record would have been helpful in challenging denial of certain benefits for ongoing problems associated with his injury.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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