BISMARCK, ND (AP) — Democrats, Republicans and a media attorney called on Tuesday for an independent investigation into possible violations of North Dakota’s open records laws by the state attorney general’s office.
At issue is whether there was foul play on the part of Liz Brocker, who handled the deletion of Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenhejem’s state email account a day after he died of cardiac arrest.
Brocker, a longtime administrative assistant and spokesperson for Stenehjem, resigned on Friday and a phone number for her could not be obtained. Current Attorney General Drew Wrigley, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday that his office investigated and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
“We had a lot of eyes on this, a lot of lawyers with significant expertise weighing the facts,” the statement said. “No one sees an arguable allegation of illegality.”
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The Attorney General is responsible for investigating complaints about possible violations of the Public Records and State Meetings Acts in state and local governments. He has not and should not oversee his own investigations, said GOP Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner.
“We need to put the facts on the table,” Wardner said, calling for an outside investigation. “It’s really difficult to conduct an investigation, to investigate yourself.”
Some see the deletion of the emails as a conspiracy or a cover-up, and it has fueled North Dakota talk radios and political bloggers in recent days.
“There will always be skeptics, but we have to make this clean and something that people will accept,” Wardner said of an outside survey.
An open records request showed that Brocker requested the deletion of Stenehjem’s account in an email to an information technology employee on January 29. She wrote that the deletion was approved by then-Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel.
“We want to make sure no one has the ability to request an open record for their emails, especially since they’ve kept EVERYTHING,” Brocker’s email said.
The revelation of the deleted emails was made public last week when Wrigley responded to open case inquiries regarding a $1.8 million cost overrun on the attorney general’s office lease when Stenehjem was in charge. Wrigley had to explain in his answer why certain information was not available.
Seibel’s email account was also deleted in May, two months after Seibel resigned following Wrigley’s stated plans to appoint his own deputy.
Seibel said he did not recall a conversation on Stenehjem’s email account. He also said it could have been removed as standard procedure.
Democratic Party Chairman Patrick Hart said the email deletions were illegal and called for a criminal investigation Tuesday, either by the county attorney’s office or an attorney general from another state.
“There has to be transparency and there has to be accountability,” Hart said. “The emails were not theirs to delete. They belong to the people of North Dakota.
North Dakota law makes tampering with public records a crime if a public official “knowingly, without lawful authority, destroys, conceals, deletes, or otherwise impairs the truth or availability of any government record.” The Open Records Act does not set requirements for the retention of records. A separate records management law requires each agency to establish a retention policy.
Wrigley did not immediately respond to a question about his agency’s retention policy.
Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney who represents the media on issues involving public records and state assembly laws, said the redactions were likely inappropriate. He called for an independent investigation to determine whether those involved in the deletions had the authority to do so.
“Drew needs to turn this over to a (county) prosecutor,” McDonald said.
Wrigley, a former U.S. attorney and lieutenant governor, is running to retain the attorney general job in November. Democrats have endorsed Grand Forks attorney Timothy Lamb for attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement official.
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