We see that you have javascript disabled. Please enable javascript and refresh the page to continue reading local news. If you feel you have received this message in error, please contact the customer support team at 1-833-248-7801.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Port: Burleigh County state's attorney says she sees no crime in AG's office email scandal

"I am only aware of the information reported by the media and there is not anything that has been reported that causes me to believe a crime occurred to make a referral," Julie Lawyer says of the deleted email scandal in the North Dakota Attorney General's Office.

ND Capitol.03.jpg
“The Pioneer Family” stands in front of the North Dakota Capitol on July 14, 2016, in Bismarck.
Forum file photo
We are part of The Trust Project.

MINOT, N.D. — For the last week or so there has been a lot of intense focus on Attorney General Drew Wrigley and his decision to eschew an external investigation into the deletion of the official email accounts of his predecessor, Wayne Stenehjem, and his deputy Troy Seibel.

Yesterday, Democrats held a news conference in the state Capitol building, right outside Wrigley's office, calling on him to "initiate a complete investigation" of the matter.

Wrigley, like Stenehjem a Republican, is making the wrong decision , and ought not to be dismissive of an investigation. Even if he's right, and no actionable crime has been committed, a breach of the public's trust in their state government has occurred, and a thorough review, even if just for form's sake, would help restore that trust.

At the very least, it would create a comprehensive factual record that could be used to pursue policy reforms to ensure this sort of thing doesn't happen again.

But this will-he-or-won't-he focus on Wrigley is a bit of a distraction and rooted more in partisan motivations than the reality of the situation before us.

ADVERTISEMENT

This is an election year, after all, and Wrigley is on the ballot, though his opponent seems to be missing in action. Yesterday, while Democrats were holding a press conference outside Wrigley's office, their candidate for attorney general, bikini model aficionado Tim Lamb , wasn't there. Which would be eyebrow-raising if anyone really thought he could win in November.

But let's move beyond politics. Everyone is talking about the email scandal as though Wrigley were the singular person who could order an investigation into what happened.

He's not.

There are other officials who could initiate an inquiry. The Burleigh County state's attorney, for example. That person is the aptly named Julie Lawyer, whose jurisdiction covers Bismarck and the state Capitol building. I asked her if she's pursuing an inquiry.

She says she's not. Her office doesn't perform investigations, but it does refer matters for investigation. "I am only aware of the information reported by the media and there is not anything that has been reported that causes me to believe a crime occurred to make a referral," she told me.

Burleigh County State's Attorney Julie Lawyer
Burleigh County State's Attorney Julie Lawyer
Official photo

"Not every email is a 'record' under the law. If an email is a 'record', the email itself may not need to be retained if it is printed or if the 'record' was copied elsewhere, for instance, saved on a computer or a media drive. Furthermore, my understanding is there is no way to retrieve what was deleted, so it would be impossible to prove that a 'record' was destroyed," she continued. "Based on that information, I won’t be requesting an investigation."

If a prosecutor such as Lawyer were going to look into things, she'd refer the matter to a law enforcement agency such as the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which also handles security at the state Capitol. But, as of now, they aren't looking into the deleted emails either.

"We are not investigating this matter," Lt. Tom Iverson told me. "It is my understanding the auditors office is already looking into it."

ADVERTISEMENT

State Auditor Josh Gallion's office is in the process of reviewing the budget overrun that led to the revelation that these email accounts had been deleted, though they won't be looking at the criminal aspect of it.

"That's questioning did something illegal happen. The auditor's office doesn't handle those sort of investigations," Gallion, a Republican, told me.

The emails are pertinent to a review his office is conducting, however. "We attempted to try and obtain those emails, and that's when we found they were deleted. When we worked through ITD, they told us we had to work through the Attorney General's Office. That's where trying to obtain those ended," he said.

State Auditor Josh Gallion presents his Governor's Travel and Use of State Resources report to members of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. Bismarck Tribune photo
State Auditor Josh Gallion presents his Governor's Travel and Use of State Resources report to members of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. Bismarck Tribune photo

"We have obtained records, and we're trying to develop a timeline of the events, determining what actually occurred and when. Once we have that timeline developed, we're going to try and evaluate the spending portion of it. Where did the money come from? How did they find a couple of million dollars? Where does an agency find this amount of money in their budget? That's what we're trying to find," he continued.

The missing emails are frustrating to that process, he said. "We really need those emails to try and put some perspective into those documents."

But determining if their deletion was a crime? "The emails, that might be beyond the auditor's office," Gallion told me.

Gallion is likely right, but that doesn't help fill the hole at the center of this controversy, which is an official inquiry that might, if the law allows, bring legal consequences down on those who violated the public's trust so egregiously.

It seems we should at least try. At least, that's what this observer things. But the argument that Wrigley is somehow, singularly, roadblocking an investigation?

ADVERTISEMENT

It just ain't so.

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.
What to read next
State Rep. Mike Nathe joined this episode of Plain Talk to discuss a proposal he's backing to reduce North Dakota's property taxes with Legacy Fund revenues. Also, co-host Chad Oban and I discuss the latest news from the congressional races, including all the new polling.
Why should anyone believe Republicans when they talk about things like values and principles when the GOP consistently promotes cretins like these?
A book by former Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman reveals that Attorney General Drew Wrigley, North Dakota's U.S. attorney at the time, proposed strategies to “Stop the Steal” that went to Sen. Kevin Cramer and from there straight to the White House.
The week had plenty of ceremony, as well as a big football win on Saturday.