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Our view: Incident with former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's emails is simply baffling

Eventually, most every public office or entity will run afoul of laws and protocols regarding open records and public documents, if only momentarily. Often, it’s a simple misunderstanding – a new clerk isn’t cognizant of how the laws work, for example. That wasn't the case here.

Herald pull quote, 7/20/22
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Eventually, most every public office or entity will run afoul of laws and protocols regarding open records and public documents, if only momentarily. Often, it’s a simple misunderstanding – a new clerk isn’t cognizant of how the laws work, for example.

Our experience is that a simple phone call often straightens things out and the public documents can then be accessed.

But recently, a disturbing case is making news in North Dakota. It convinces us that more efforts and training must be focused on public records and the laws that make those records open to anyone who wishes to see them.

It was learned earlier this month that the email account of late Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was deleted by office spokeswoman Liz Brocker days after Stenehjem’s death in January. The news came to light after Forum News Service conducted a records request about a budget overrun in the Attorney General’s Office.

It was a very intentional act. In an email to a tech employee, Brocker said “we want to make sure no one has an opportunity to make an open record request for his emails, especially as he kept EVERYTHING.” Brocker resigned on Friday.

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The irony is thick. Stenehjem spent years working to create and improve transparency in state government. Upon his death, he was lauded for his open-government efforts, including by the Herald .

There’s more: Not only was Stenehjem’s email account deleted – even though he was in office at the time of his death – but the email account of former Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel also was deleted upon his resignation in the spring. The accounts have been deemed unretrievable by state tech employees.

In a report by Forum News Service, Stenehjem’s replacement, Drew Wrigley, said the deletion is “obviously concerning” but did not violate state law because there were no pending requests for documents within those email accounts. However, he said the office doesn’t have an established policy regarding deleting employee email accounts.

That’s where improvements can be made. The state should learn from this mishap and establish policy, immediately, that will preserve these kinds of public records going forward.

For the record, we believe – and are backed up by laws and protocols established in recent decades – that things like emails and text messages made on government property and/or by public and government officials belong to the people.

We acknowledge that some government workers do not fully understand how open government works. If education on open-government procedures is an issue, states – especially North Dakota, considering the recent email incident – should undertake some sort of training program to make employees aware of the implications of destroying documents, which really do belong to the people.

But Stenehjem’s staff, who worked for a man who did so much for government openness, certainly should have understood the implications. In fact, Brocker’s email – in which she vehemently declares “we want to make sure no one has an opportunity to make an open record request” – shows she knew exactly what she was doing.

This truly is a baffling incident, and it erodes trust in a system that Stenehjem worked so hard to build.

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