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Deleted emails of former North Dakota attorney general are not recoverable, consultant finds

Recently elected Attorney General Drew Wrigley told Forum News Service a report compiled by private firm Planet Technologies concluded that former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's deleted account cannot be recovered.

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Troy Becker / The Forum
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BISMARCK — A tech consultant's attempt to recover a deleted email account belonging to former North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has come up empty.

Recently elected Attorney General Drew Wrigley told Forum News Service on Tuesday, Nov. 22, a report compiled by private firm Planet Technologies concluded that Stenehjem's deleted account cannot be recovered.

Three days after Stenehjem’s death in January, state information technology officials deleted the late officeholder's state email account at the direction of Liz Brocker, a longtime assistant to the Republican attorney general. Brocker also instructed state IT officials to eliminate former Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel’s email account after he resigned in May.

Brocker stepped down from her post in July after Wrigley discovered while fulfilling a public records request that she had orchestrated the deletion of the accounts.

Wrigley, who was appointed in February, denounced Brocker’s actions and said he wanted to exhaust all options for retrieving the emails, which could shine light on a $1.7 million cost overrun racked up by the office under Stenehjem.

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The four-page Planet Technologies report says data from a Microsoft email account is "purged" 30 days after it is deleted.

"Planet is confident in saying with 100% confidence that there is no data to be recovered for any mailbox within the Microsoft Office 365 system," the report says.

The North Dakota Information Technology Department (ITD) hired private consulting firm Planet Technologies in late September to help with email salvage efforts. A Forum News Service investigation found that the public agency assured state leaders for months the emails were unrecoverable but did not bring in any outside firms to help recoup Stenehjem’s emails despite mounting public pressure.

A leading ITD official said miscommunication with the attorney general’s office caused his agency to delay in contracting with an outside company.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Former North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Forum News Service file photo

A September report released by State Auditor Josh Gallion found that ITD had not opened a support case with email service provider Microsoft to help retrieve data from Stenehjem’s account. ITD officials said there was no need because they know the ins and outs of the state's email system.

Wrigley told Forum News Service he is not surprised the emails could not be recouped, noting that he had no reason to doubt ITD's assessment. The Republican said his office is forming a policy to indefinitely preserve emails belonging to the attorney general and the deputy attorney general to prevent a similar ordeal from happening again.

Last month, Wrigley handed off an investigation of the budget overrun to Montana officials, who may also look into the deletion of Stenehjem's emails. Wrigley has repeatedly said Brocker's elimination of the emails does not constitute a criminal act.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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