Judicial Independence
4:39 pm
Wed June 4, 2014

OIC Whistleblower To Speak Out As Questions Linger Over Her Own Conduct

An administrative law judge who says her boss meddled in her deliberations is calling for more independence for hearings officers who, like her, work for state agencies. But she faces questions about her own conduct in the case, too.

Chief presiding officer Patricia Petersen was in the middle of a high-profile dispute between Seattle Children’s Hospital and the state insurance commissioner when she said a prominent official at the commissioner’s office leaned on her to decide in the agency’s favor. That official also happens to be Petersen’s direct supervisor.

The Office of the Insurance Commissioner, like many state agencies, has hearing officers on staff that sometimes decide disputes involving the agency.

On June 16, Petersen plans to speak publicly about the case for the first time. She’ll tell the state Senate Law and Justice Committee that hearings officers need more protections.

“Administrative law judges are a crucial aspect of the system,” said Phil Talmadge, an attorney representing Petersen. “And the public of Washington ought to be concerned when they have to appear before these people, that they're not predisposed to rule in a particular way. I mean, we expect our judges to be impartial.”

But Commissioner Mike Kreidler defended keeping some administrative law judges in-house, even if that comes with a slight bent in the agency’s favor, since, he said, they have expertise in the esoteric law.

“If being knowledgeable about what the agency does is an advantage for the agency, yeah, I would say that’s probably true,” Kreidler said. “But do you want somebody that knows something, or run the risk of having somebody that may not know very much about the issues involved?”

Kreidler said people can request an outside hearings officer instead of the OIC’s, but very few do.

Petersen herself is now on the hot seat, too. She has admitted to leaking her whistleblower complaint to an attorney for Seattle Children’s, which would violate rules requiring her to share that kind of information with all parties in a case before her. She said the leak was inadvertent. She’s on paid leave while a personnel investigation proceeds.