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Under title change, attorney stays at NDSU after Legislature removes lawyers from universities

Chris Wilson

BISMARCK – A state lawmaker who pushed for shifting the North Dakota University System’s legal counsel to the attorney general’s office said he’s pleased with how the process has played out – with one exception at North Dakota State University.

The Legislature voted in April to remove the State Board of Higher Education’s authority to hire its own attorneys. Since then, the general counsel at NDSU has changed job titles once and will soon change again.

Chris Wilson, who was NDSU’s general counsel from July 2012 until June 30 this year, is currently the “special assistant to the chancellor,” university spokeswoman Sadie Rudolph said last week. On Aug. 1, he’ll become NDSU’s first chief of staff.

Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said NDSU President Dean Bresciani is “basically ignoring the Legislature” by creating the chief of staff position filled by Wilson, “which was not at all the intent.”

“The only disappointment, which does not surprise me one bit, is Bresciani’s game of shifting (Wilson) over just to keep him,” he said.

Attorneys get 90 days’ notice

Lawmakers gave the attorney general’s office funding to hire seven attorneys and two administrative assistants to represent the university system. But the system had to fire its eight attorneys and two legal staff on May 1, giving them 90 days’ notice per board policy.

Four of those system attorneys applied for jobs with the attorney general’s office, and all four were hired and will continue working at their present location: Jason Jenkins and Charles Evans at the University of North Dakota, Matthew Hammer at NDSU and Noah Brisbin at the system office in Bismarck.

The four who didn’t apply -- Wilson being one of them -- are still employed by the system through Aug. 1, but Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has revoked their status as special assistant attorneys general, so they can’t do legal work for the system.

“They are assisting with the transition and doing whatever they need to do to shut down their operations,” system Chief of Staff Murray Sagsveen said.

Same campus, new role

When the board announced April 30 that the system attorneys were being fired, NDUS Staff Adviser Janice Hoffarth urged presidents to find options for the system employees, which appears to have been the case for Wilson.

In his current position, Wilson “assists the newly-hired assistant attorneys general (AAGs) with the transition of legal services to the AG's office (at the same time avoiding activities that might be construed as ‘lawyering’),” Sagsveen wrote in a July 2 email to Bresciani.

“I’ve also asked Chris to provide support to you, if you have a non-legal project that he can complete by the end of the month,” Sagsveen’s email continued. “If you do not have a project and Chris has completed all transition-related work, he and I will discuss other arrangement (sic) for the remainder of July.”

Two weeks later, Bresciani emailed all NDSU employees to say that a “national search and screening process was conducted, and resulted in the return to our campus of former NDSU General Counsel Christopher Wilson.”

In his email, Bresciani wrote that the chief of staff position was funded by salary savings from the departure of Evie Myers, former vice president for equity, diversity and global outreach. He said the position is common at major research institutions and that Wilson will also be the Title IX coordinator.

The university provided these emails to The Forum to describe Wilson’s changing roles. Throughout, he has continued to work from NDSU.

Wilson was not available for comment Thursday.

Hires a mix of old and new

Sagsveen, whose position also ends Aug. 1, said he doesn’t know the plans of the other three system attorneys losing their jobs.

Attorneys Julie Evans at UND and Cynthia Wagner Goulet in the system office declined to comment Friday about their future plans or why they didn’t apply for a job with the attorney general’s office.

Tracy Kolb, who began working in the system office in October, said she’s returning to private practice and didn’t apply for a job with the attorney general’s office because of the pay and how the loss of in-house counsel would change the attorney-client relationship. Salary figures from the two offices show Jenkins’ and Evans’ pay changed slightly while Hammer and Brisbin each took more significant pay cuts.

The hiring process is complete for two of the remaining three attorney positions in the attorney general’s office.

Heather Wages, a 2012 graduate of the UND School of Law, will start in August at UND. Nicholas Vaughn, assistant director of employee relations since November 2010 at American University in Washington, D.C., also will begin in August in the attorney general’s office at the state Capitol.

The other position will also be in the Capitol. The attorney general’s office received 20 applications for the seven jobs, and the open spot will likely be re-advertised because the applicant to which it was offered turned it down for another job and the rest of pool wasn’t interested, office spokeswoman Liz Brocker said.

Streyle said he’s pleased the hires include both outsiders and attorneys familiar with the system, especially Jenkins, an intellectual property specialist he called “critical” to both UND and NDSU, the state’s major research universities.

“I think it was more of our intent that if they were truly qualified and it was competitive, they should get their jobs back,” he said. “I’m happy with the results … and that we’re getting some fresh eyes, because there’s been some problems in the past.”

‘A fundamental difference’

Frustrations among lawmakers over gaffes by the university system, including repeated violations of open records and open meetings laws, spurred the move to transfer its attorneys to Stenehjem’s office and its auditors to the state auditor’s office.

Sagsveen, a former assistant attorney general, said there’s a “fundamental difference” between having in-house counsel versus attorneys on the staff of an elected official “who provides legal services on-call.”

“The difference is that generally when you have in-house counsel, it’s a very collaborative working relationship,” he said.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Thomas Trenbeath, a former state lawmaker, agreed that it’s a fundamental shift but said the office is optimistic about it. He met with attorneys at UND and NDSU last week.

“I think they’re very pleased … compared to what they were fearful of,” he said.

Trenbeath noted the 11 public colleges and universities will now have 40 attorneys at their disposal through the attorney general’s office instead of just eight.

“So, if someone has a question that’s not in the wheelhouse of the attorneys who have traditionally been on staff, they’ve got a bench that they can go to,” he said.

“We’ve said from the start that this wasn’t our idea,” he added. “However, we were receptive to it, because Wayne has always been of the opinion that the attorney general’s office should be supplying legal services to state government.”

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at