FARGO – Police are investigating a City Commission candidate and School Board member after receiving a formal complaint last week that he violated state law by projecting a campaign ad onto a city water tower.
Lt. Joel Vettel said someone complained to police on Friday about John Strand projecting his blue “I Stand with Strand” campaign logo on the side of a city water tower near the 400 block of north Broadway last month.
Vettel declined to say who filed the complaint, citing an open investigation, but said the police report could be in front of Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick for possible charges by the week’s end.
Burdick has said Strand’s projection appears to violate state law, which prevents the use of public property for the purposes of political campaigning. Those found guilty of such an offense could be stripped of their government job or candidacy in a public election.
Strand, a School Board member since 2008, is running for one of two open seats on the Fargo City Commission in the June 10 election.
He has maintained he has the legal right to use the projection – which he once called a “brilliant” use of new technology – but he disabled the projection late last month on the same day concerns were raised about its legality.
Strand said Monday he is aware of the complaint and doesn’t believe it was filed by another candidate.
“I got the impression it’s not, but I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”
He declined further comment and pointed to a written statement, which said in part: “Emptying the ballot of quality candidates over such frivolous and inconsequential trivialities is not in the public’s best interest.”
A message left for Strand’s attorney, John Goff, was not returned Monday.
Strand also said in his statement that he has “numerous photographs” of other candidates’ political advertisements placed on public boulevards, which he argues is the same kind of infraction for which he is being accused.
Strand posted photos on his Facebook page of several yard signs staked in boulevards, including signs for mayoral, City Commission and School Board candidates.
The water tower projection was used two nights over the span of about a week before being disabled, his statement said.
Vettel called it a “relatively simple investigation,” saying the facts of the case seem clear, and so it will likely come down to a legal interpretation of state law once in the hands of the state’s attorney.
Strand has been citing a North Dakota Supreme Court decision from 1979 to back up his campaign tactic. In that decision, the court decided that Justice Gerald VandeWalle was not guilty of corrupt electioneering, after the justice appeared in a TV campaign ad wearing his judge’s robe and seated at the bench of the Supreme Court.
The state Supreme Court decided there needed to be some kind of “misuse of public funds or a financial misuse of public property for political purposes” for there to be corruption under state law.
In VandeWalle’s case, the court decision said any “wear and tear” of the justice bench or the amount of electricity consumed while taping the 30-second TV ad would be “miniscule” costs.
In his statement, Strand said any costs from his projection should also be considered “inconsequential and harmless,” and that he cost the taxpayer “no funds.”
Burdick has referenced that same Supreme Court decision, but he said Strand still seems out of line.
“I don’t imagine that Strand’s situation has had financial impact on public services or building, but it, on its face, seems wrong,” Burdick said Monday.
Still, Burdick said he didn’t yet know the details of the police report, so he would not say if he would press charges. He said he is having a law clerk research more about the law and the Legislature’s intent in creating it.
With the election a week away, any possible penalties for a conviction under the corruption law wouldn’t come until well after Election Day.