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North Dakota AG Wrigley hands off cost overrun investigation to Montana

A panel of North Dakota lawmakers directed Attorney General Drew Wrigley last month to hire an outside agency to investigate a $1.7 million budget overrun that accumulated under his predecessor.

Drew Wrigley gestures while seated in a conference room
North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley gestures while seated in a conference room prior to his appointment as the state's top law enforcement official.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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BISMARCK — Montana investigators will look into a $1.7 million cost overrun incurred by former North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office.

Last month, a panel of North Dakota lawmakers directed Attorney General Drew Wrigley to hire an outside agency to investigate the budget overrun, which accumulated in 2021 after Stenehjem's agency made expensive renovations to a south Bismarck office building.

Deputy Attorney General Claire Ness confirmed on Tuesday, Oct. 11, the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation will take on the investigation into the overrun. Montana will decide the scope of the independent investigation, and the attorney general's office will provide the neighboring officials with the relevant documents, Ness said.

Wrigley, who was appointed after Stenehjem died earlier this year, made public in June that the attorney general's office under his predecessor accrued significant unexpected costs tied to a leased building that houses the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the State Lottery and other branches of the agency.

A report released by State Auditor Josh Gallion last month found that:

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  • The building was poorly equipped to house the attorney general's office, and division directors within the agency raised multiple concerns about the office space before the lease was signed in 2020. Renovations on the building cost $5.5 million, which left the state on the hook for about $1.7 million it had not planned to cover.
  • State Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, agreed to lease the building to the state before his firm owned it. Dockter, a former campaign treasurer for Stenehjem, denies his personal relationship with the attorney general caused any conflict of interest in his business dealings with the state.
  • Several firms co-owned by Dockter performed contracting work on the building. Gallion alleged that the companies kept poor records and may have overcharged the state for the work on the building. Dockter said his companies did nothing wrong in their dealings with the state.

Gallion's report also included some new information about the deletion of Stenehjem and former Deputy Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's email accounts. Former staffer Liz Brocker, who resigned in July, directed information technology officials to wipe Stenehjem's email three days after his death.

Reporting by Forum News Service found that the North Dakota Information Technology Department did not bring in any outside firms to help recoup Stenehjem’s emails until Sept. 30. The IT department recently hired a private firm to help with email recovery.

It's not clear whether the Montana investigators will look into the deletion of the emails, but Ness said the attorney general's office will answer any questions investigators ask.

A timeline for the investigation has not been determined, Ness said. North Dakota will pay for the Montana officials' room and board while they are in the state, but other costs will be covered by Montana as a courtesy between law enforcement agencies.

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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