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Former judge to decide Pawlenty cabinet member's future
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Commissioner Volz says she hopes she and the governor will be able to persuade the DFL-controlled Senate to approve her appointment. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Pawlenty's office has announced that he will appoint a former judge as a neutral third party to determine any penalties against Labor and Industry Commissioner Jane Volz. Pawlenty appointed Richard Solum with the Dorsey and Whitney law firm to determine whether Volz should face fines for not providing worker's compensation coverage to employees at her former law firm. A DFL lawmaker is calling on Volz to resign as labor and industry commissioner. As commissioner, Volz would oversee worker's health and safety laws and several groups say they are concerned Volz would be enforcing the very laws she violated.

St. Paul, Minn. — Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, says Volz is unfit to lead the Department of Labor and Industry. He says Volz' characterization of the workers comp matter as "an oversight" is unacceptable. Mahoney, a union pipefitter, says Volz should step down and if she doesn't, Gov. Pawlenty should remove her.

"She should not be the person in charge of making sure that when I go to work and I climb a ladder that if I get hurt, my bills get paid. If you run a business don't you meet with your insurance agent at least once a year?" Mahoney said.

Mahoney said he will lobby the Senate to vote against her confirmation. Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger wasn't prepared to say how he would vote on Volz' confirmation. He says, however, the Senate will closely examine her credentials.

"She'll need to answer some questions during the confirmation process. She was portrayed as an expert in this area. I've run smaller firms, I know what it's like. Your insurance agent doesn't allow you to forget about worker's compensation. I think that raises some serious questions," Hottinger said.

Commissioner Volz should be given some forgiveness.
- Gov. Pawlenty

Gov. Pawlenty says he intends to pursue Volz' nomination. At a news conference in St.Cloud, Pawlenty said he has confidence in Volz' ability.

"People make mistakes," Pawlenty said. "The question is how do you deal with it? Did you own up to it? Are you willing to admit you made a mistake? Are you likely to do it again and are you willing to face the consequences and make it right? And on that score it seems like Commissioner Volz should be given some forgiveness, but I will meet with her and see if I have all the facts and information and we'll see where that heads."

Pawlenty's chief of staff says Volz isn't the only person who didn't provide worker's compensation coverage for her employees. Charlie Weaver says a number of politicians, including the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, failed to provide the necessary coverage to several employees during last year's election cycle. Weaver described Volz' failure to insure her employees a "mistake."

"I think the important part for the governor is that she didn't deny it, didn't run from it, didn't try to hide from it. She stood up and said 'Hey I made a mistake.' and then acknowledged it. And that's the important thing," according to Weaver.

Volz's claims she recused herself from the case and turned it over to Attorney General Mike Hatch's office. But she did so after the Star Tribune newspaper recently inquired about coverage at her law firm. Volz says she asked her agent about the coverage in January. News reports surfaced at that time that Sen. Wellstone had not provided coverage to some of his employees who died along with him in a plane crash.

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Image Rep. Tim Mahoney

Attorney General Mike Hatch says his office has not agreed to investigate Volz' case. He says he won't conduct the investigation since his role is to represent state government.

"We don't on our own go out and start negotiating cases. That's not the appropriate role for this office," Hatch said.

Volz says she's prepared to pay civil penalties for the violation. She also says her office will strictly enforce worker health and safety laws.

"I gave up my business to come to this agency and run this agency and I am confident ... that I can do this. I want to be here. I wouldn't have given up my law practice if I didn't. Our number one goal here is worker safety and I want to work towards that. I believe I am the right person to do that," said Volz.

The head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union says he's not sure the department will have the necessary enforcement muscle with Volz as head. Executive Director Peter Benner says Volz and her staff may simply lack credibility when it comes to enforcing worker health and safety laws.

"For the folks in Labor and Industry, you have to do the enforcement work. You know that when they're going out there to deal with an employer for failing to pay workers comp the first thing they're going to get back from that employer is a giggle or worse," Benner said.

Benner says his union has not lobbied for or against any commissioner appointments in the past. He says he doesn't believe his union will lobby the senate on Volz' confirmation.

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