Administrative-law judge Patricia Petersen, recently suspended as the Office of the Insurance Commissioner’s chief presiding officer, has admitted that she sent an emailed copy of her own whistle-blower complaint to a lawyer in a hotly contested insurance dispute before her.
In a letter Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler received Monday, Petersen said she inadvertently emailed the copy to Michael Madden, who was representing Seattle Children’s hospital in the case before her. She said she received his name as an employment-law expert she should consider hiring to represent her in her own employment case. She said she didn’t recognize his name at the time.
Contact with only one party in a legal case, called ex parte contact, is a violation of legal ethics for judges and the lawyers involved.
The email Peterson sent was a copy of a whistle-blower complaintshe had filed with the State Auditor’s Office, alleging that her independence was being threatened by her supervisor in the Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC). The Auditor’s Office declined to investigate.
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In her letter to Kreidler, dated May 27, Petersen said she did not recognize Madden’s name at the time she sent the email anonymously from an Olympia Office Depot. She said Madden had appeared before her only once, for a short while, and was one of some 13 attorneys representing various parties in the case.
“For this reason I sent him a copy of my Whistleblower Report to give him a notion of my problem so we could discuss the issues I was facing should I seek to retain him personally,” Petersen wrote in the letter to the OIC.
She said that when Kreidler had asked her on May 14 point-blank whether she had sent the copy to one of the parties in the Seattle Children’s case, she denied it.
“At that time, I believed that my statement to you was accurate,” she said in her letter. “I now believe that I did inadvertently send a copy of the Whistleblower complaint to an attorney in the [Seattle Children’s hospital] case although I did not realize this until just recently.”
Contacted Monday, Madden said it was “certainly plausible” that Petersen could have received his name as an expert in employment law, health care and ethics. But the email came “out of the blue” with no earlier phone conversation or cover letter, though Petersen’s name and contact information were included in the whistle-blower complaint.
In a May 14 prehearing conference call in the case involving Children’s, Madden said he received the copy of the whistle-blower complaint — a possible ex parte contact. That started a spiral of events leading to Petersen’s suspension that day and a call by a Republican state senator for possible legislation on protecting the independence of administrative-law judges.
Ironically, Petersen, who has said her job description emphasizes her independence, had alleged the same type of unethical communication in her whistle-blower complaint and in a notice filed in the case, which was emailed to all the lawyers the day before the conference call.
In both her notice and the whistle-blower complaint, Petersen said her supervisor, Insurance Commissioner Chief Deputy Jim Odiorne, had attempted to discuss cases with her and had pressured her to decide them in a certain way. In the whistle-blower complaint, she said he had threatened her job if her decisions were not in sync with the agency’s position.
The OIC says Odiorne was doing what a supervisor should do, and was within his rights to do so. Agency officials said there’s no proof — other than Petersen’s comments — that he was outside ethical boundaries in his discussions with her.
Madden noted that the lawyers already knew the substance of the whistle-blower complaint. And the fact that Petersen’s complaint about her employer centered on ex parte communication, he said, made her explanation — that she inadvertently sent the email to him — more plausible.
“I’ve tried to think of any good reason why Judge Petersen would send that thing to me,” Madden said. “It would be a little difficult to complain about ex parte contact by her boss and at the same time be engaging in ex parte contact.”
Petersen’s version of events, he said, is the first actual explanation he’s heard for the events. “It could well be, if you’re thinking logically, that this was just a screw-up,” he said.
The case Petersen was hearing is a hot one because it has to do with the “narrow networks” issue that has pitted hospitals against insurers in the era of the Affordable Care Act. Seattle Children’s hospital wants the OIC to say that Premera Blue Cross and BridgeSpan Health must include Children’s in their provider networks.
The OIC has signed a contract with attorney George Finkle, a former King County Superior Court judge, to take over Petersen’s cases.
OIC spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said an investigation would continue into Petersen’s allegations regarding unethical contact and pressure on cases. Petersen will remain on paid administrative leave until the investigation is completed, Marquis said.
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter costrom