Attendees of meeting with FBI say agency did not raise concerns about Fufeng’s expansion in Grand Forks
Closed-door meeting took place Wednesday afternoon.
GRAND FORKS – Top Grand Forks city leaders hosted a briefing from FBI representatives on Wednesday afternoon as Fufeng Group — a major Chinese business — plans a corn-milling plant on the city’s north end.
Multiple attendees said the briefing touched on Chinese investment in the American agricultural sector, but they also said the FBI did not raise concerns about Fufeng’s expansion in North Dakota.
Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski said FBI officials described billions of dollars in mutual investment between the two countries, and noted that a new Fufeng plant represents a major investment — not an acquisition of an American agricultural asset.
“China right now owns .05% of US farmland, and one of the USDA statistics was talking about food security and that China wasn’t going to be the cause of our food insecurity,” Bochenski said. “The two main concerns on food insecurity are poverty and the increase in land prices.”
Attendees included City Council members Dana Sande and Bret Weber, City Administrator Todd Feland, and City Attorney Dan Gaustad, as well as Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson and Deputy Chief Brett Johnson. They were joined by three FBI representatives — one local, and two from Minneapolis.
“There were no immediate concerns (about Fufeng Group),” Bochenski said. “They just talked about how China operates, and things that we can look out for going into the future, and if you see something, say something type of thing. … It was a general briefing, but it touched on foreign direct investment and (investment) from China.”
The briefing comes as public concerns about the plant crest, with the city in recent weeks forced to grapple with nearly 5,000 signatures on a petition calling for a public vote on the plant’s future. Though that petition was ultimately found invalid for legal, technical reasons, it showed that skepticism of the new plant is a meaningful political force.
That skepticism of the corn-milling plant has a range of causes — some environmental, some financial — but many are linked to Fufeng Group’s roots in China, arguably the United States’ most potent international rival. U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had warned earlier this year that the project should be carefully vetted, especially given its proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Eric Chutorash, the COO of Fufeng USA — the American subsidiary responsible for building the plant — did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment after Wednesday’s briefing.
Notably, no evidence has yet emerged linking Fufeng Group to any wrongdoing in the U.S.
“I know we’re not going to be asked to be collecting any intelligence on Grand Forks Air Force Base,” Chutorash told the Herald in late March. “I can’t stress it any more than that. (But) me personally, I wouldn’t provide it. I don’t believe the team being built there would provide it. … Our HR director, commercial director and sales team and engineer, they're from here – they're not people transferred from China. The workers in the plant will be Americans. I can't imagine that anybody in the facility would participate in that.”
Protesters gathered near City Hall on Wednesday, where the meeting was expected to unfold. Jodi Carlson, who has been involved in the drive to gather signatures, expressed frustration that the briefing was closed to the public.
“I actually had emailed the City Council and I had asked them if a representative of our group could be invited just as a quiet observer, it would help clear up any of the misconceptions of secret meetings, and I did get an email back from Mr. Feland two days ago that said ‘Ms. Carlson you are not invited,’” she said.
She added, though, that the protest wasn’t really about opening the meeting.
“It’s to have our voices heard,” she said. “It seems that we’re falling upon deaf ears.”
Ultimately, the briefing was not held at City Hall, despite an announcement last week. Feland said that, after discussions with the FBI — and social media chatter about the protest near City Hall — the briefing was moved to the Grand Forks Public Safety Center on 52nd Street.
It’s not clear if the meeting with FBI officials will be enough to quell local concerns about Fufeng Group, despite leaders’ insistence that nothing is amiss.
The Herald also sought permission to attend. In an email sent to Feland and Bochenski Monday morning, Publisher Korrie Wenzel said he believed the meeting was “in the public interest and the people’s business.” The city responded that it would be a private briefing.
Weber said he raised the issue of open access for the briefing on Wednesday, and was told by a bureau official that those FBI personnel were not permitted to host a public meeting to discuss those matters — though he was told a public affairs specialist for the bureau may be able to make public remarks on the matter.
But he also said that he still feels convinced that security fears about Fufeng are overblown.
“I know that people want some sort of signed letter from the FBI director, saying that there's no investigation into Fufeng. We're just not going to get that,” Weber said, noting although the FBI cannot confirm or deny investigations, the briefing left him feeling assured. “Short of saying that, the inference that I walked away with was that there is no investigation into Fufeng, in terms of criminal matters or threats to national security.”
The Herald's Meghan Arbegast contributed to this report.