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Port: Attorney General Drew Wrigley is making a mistake by refusing an outside investigation

There are plenty of honest questions about this situation that are unanswered. A thorough, independent investigation could perhaps answer some of them. At the very least, it could illuminate which steps need to be taken to keep this from happening again.

Drew Wrigley gestures while seated in a conference room
North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — This week, Attorney General Drew Wrigley announced that he will not be outsourcing an investigation into the deletion of official, state-issued email accounts for his predecessor, Wayne Stenehjem, or Stenehjem's deputy, Troy Seibel.

He is rejecting calls to let outside investigators explore the matter, and potentially bring charges.

If you're just catching up, the deletions were ordered by Stenehjem's longtime executive assistant, Liz Brocker, who made it clear in her email to state IT personnel that her intent was to keep information away from the public. "We want to make sure no one has an opportunity to make an Open Record request for his emails," she wrote , referring to Stenehjem, "especially as he kept EVERYTHING."

Screen capture of an email sent by Liz Brocker, a former executive assistant to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who ordered his email account deleted shortly after his death.
Screen capture of an email sent by Liz Brocker, a former executive assistant to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who ordered his email account deleted shortly after his death.<br/>
Screencapture

Also this week, talk radio host Joel Heitkamp used the occasion of this scandalous deletion of emails to announce some conspiracy theories to his audience that are reminiscent of the Qanon/Pizzagate sex ring nonsense. He imagines a cover-up in the emails of some horrendous personal behavior by Republicans, and since we'll never get a look at the emails, thanks to Brocker, it's not like he can be directly refuted.

Though, I would argue that people of integrity — of which Heitkamp has very little — understand that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, of which Heitkamp has none.

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I suspect that what we'd find in Stenehjem's and Seibel's now-deleted emails, if we could magic them back into existence, would be pretty innocuous. Perhaps we'd catch Stenehjem being embarrassingly candid about a fellow state official. Maybe we'd find out that he poorly handled the budget overrun that led to the open records requests that, in turn, led to the discovery of these deleted accounts.

But I don't know that to be true, any more than Heitkamp knows anything.

This is what makes Brocker's actions so galling. In supposedly trying to protect Stenehjem's legacy, she besmirched it in a way some will never, ever let go.

For better or worse, this debacle is now a part of the man's legacy, and that's tragic, all the more so because none of it was the result of his choices, and he's no longer with us to defend himself.

This brings us back to Wrigley's decision to try and close the book on this matter without independent investigation.

It's the wrong decision.

Wayne Stenehjem. Forum file photo
Wayne Stenehjem.
Forum file photo

Worse, it gives the conspiracy mongers, such as Heitkamp, more grist for their mills. Wrigley, who had nothing to do with any of this, will be lumped into the conspiracy. He'll be part of the cover-up too.

No investigation is likely to get back what was lost, but it could bring more transparency to what happened, and why it happened, as well as some accountability for Brocker, and those that helped her.

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Remember, Brocker asked state IT officials to delete these accounts for her, and they didn't bat an eye. We deserve to know why.

An investigation could also help inform the process of making clearly needed reforms to our records retention policies.

But it won't quiet the social media trolls.

Those people, when confronted by facts that run contrary to what they want to believe, will only expand their conspiracies, because they're not honest people.

But there are plenty of honest questions about this situation that are unanswered. A thorough, independent investigation could perhaps answer some of them. At the very least, it could illuminate which steps need to be taken to keep this from happening again.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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