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Former BCBS head Mike Unhjem found dead at home

Mike Unhjem

The former head of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, who resigned amid controversy from a 2009 trip to the Grand Cayman Islands, is dead.

Police responded to a welfare check at 2:05 p.m. Monday and found Michael Unhjem, 57, dead at his home at 3210 40th Ave. S., said Sgt. Carlos Nestler.

No foul play is suspected at this time, Nestler said.

Scott Hennen, a Fargo radio personality who considered himself Unhjem's friend, said the death was a suicide.

Unhjem's ex-wife, Mary, was contacted by The Forum late Monday afternoon and declined to comment.

Hennen said he recently met Unhjem for lunch and that Unhjem was happy to report a reconciliation with his wife and recent successes he had in losing weight and staying sober.

But Unhjem was still bothered by the treatment he had received following his ousting at BCBS, Hennen said.

Unhjem served as president and CEO of the North Dakota Blues for 18 years before he was dismissed on March 9, 2009, amid public furor over a sales reward trip to a luxury resort in the Grand Cayman Islands.

The BCBS controversy led to an extensive investigation by state insurance examiners into the nonprofit's finances, revealing lavish spending and bonuses at a time when many American companies were laying off employees and cutting expenses.

"I believe Mike was a lost soul," Hennen said. "He saw himself as a leader of those organizations. It's what he built. ... He told me he couldn't get over (it) and wanted it all back. How very sad."

In 2008, Unhjem received more than $430,000 in bonuses. After he was fired in 2009, Unhjem received a $2.2 million severance package.

In 2006, Unhjem had a public run-in with the law. He pled guilty to DWI and received a $500 fine after he was charged with misdemeanor drunken driving after a traffic stop that was prompted by a reported burglary at a Moorhead home. Unhjem maintained he had not been at the home in question.

Unhjem was known for his involvement in local arts and served on a number of community boards. Unhjem had served as board chairman of the United Way of Cass-Clay.

Dozens of friends posted messages of remembrance on Unhjem's Facebook page Monday night.

"I always enjoyed seeing you around the community and visiting with you. Your success and friendliness were inspiring," Mike Wolsky posted on Unhjem's Facebook page.

Most recently, Unjhem launched a new consulting company, Unhjem & Associates LLC. He operated the business from his south Fargo home, also employing a part-time administrative assistant, according to a recent article The Forum did on Unhjem's new business.

The Crosby, N.D., native also had deep roots in North Dakota politics. In 1974, while a junior at Jamestown College, he became the youngest person ever elected to the North Dakota Legislature.

"The world won't be the same without you. I deeply respected you - you were my mentor and I valued our friendship. You will be greatly missed - rest in peace!" Heather Engelhorn Fried posted Monday on Facebook.

Mike Unhjem's career highlights

* In 1974, while a junior at Jamestown (N.D.) College, he became the youngest person ever elected to the North Dakota Legislature.

* Graduated from Jamestown College and the University of North Dakota School of Law in Grand Forks.

* Practiced law and worked in banking and planned-giving positions before joining Blue Cross Blue Shield as legal counsel and vice president of corporate affairs in 1986.

* Became president and chief executive officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota in 1991.

* He was chairman of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association Board of Directors in 2001 and 2002 and served on the National Council on Disability following presidential appointment by President George Bush and confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

* Terminated from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota on March 9, 2009, amid public scrutiny over a $250,000 reward trip for sales employees to a Grand Cayman Islands resort.

* Launched a consulting business, Unhjem & Associates LLC, in October 2009.