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Firefighter's case highlights Oklahoma workers' compensation controversies

A Midwest City firefighter last month was awarded $15,100 in workers' compensation disability payments after his knee locked up while digging a “gopher hole” in his own yard.
by Randy Ellis Published: March 18, 2013
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John McCormick, a workers' compensation judge at the time, sided with the arguments of Carroll's attorneys and ordered the city to pay Carroll's medical bills, which included surgery for a torn medial meniscus cartilage.

The city appealed, but the ruling was upheld by a three-judge appeal panel.

On Valentine's Day, Carroll's case came back up before the Workers' Compensation Court.

This time, a judge who had been appointed by Gov. Fallin was asked to decide how much Carroll should receive as a permanent partial disability award and how much of that amount his attorney — the governor's husband — should be paid for representing him.

Judge Margaret Bomhoff ruled that Carroll's knee had 17 percent impairment and that Carroll should be paid $15,100, with $3,020 of that going to the governor's husband's firm as an attorney fee. The fee was 20 percent of the award, which is the maximum percentage that can be awarded and the standard fee in most cases.

Potential for conflict

The judge and a spokesman for Gov. Fallin and her husband denied the situation created a conflict of interest.

“I just don't see that as a conflict,” said Judge Bomhoff, who was appointed to her $124,373 a year position by Fallin. “If I did see that there was a conflict, I would recuse (step aside) on any case.”

Alex Weintz, the governor's communications director, said, “Governor Fallin and the first gentleman have gone above and beyond what is required of them to ensure there is no conflict of interest regarding Mr. Christensen's legal practice. Out of an abundance of caution, Gov. Fallin requested opinions from both the Ethics Commission and the attorney general. Both have stated that Mr. Christensen's work is legal and ethical.”

Weintz was referring to a 2011 attorney general's opinion and 2011 ethics interpretation in which the question was asked whether it would be a conflict of interest for the governor's husband to be paid by CompSource to defend claims filed against the workers' compensation insurance agency.

The attorney general ruled CompSource funds are not state funds, so Christensen could do work for CompSource. Pruitt was not asked to rule on whether it would be a conflict for a judge appointed by the governor to directly decide how much the governor's husband should receive as an attorney's fee.

A much bigger financial conflict of interest could face the first family if the Legislature passes and the governor is asked to approve a bill switching the state from a Workers' Compensation Court system to an administrative system. It is anticipated such a change would dramatically reduce the role of workers' compensation attorneys and the pay they could expect to receive.

by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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