GOP, Democratic leaders want outside probe of deleted emails

July 19, 2022 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Democrats, Republicans and a media lawyer called 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 criminal wrongdoing by Liz Brocker, who handled the deletion of Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenhejem’s state email account a day after he died from cardiac arrest.

Brocker, Stenehjem’s longtime administrative assistant and spokeswoman, resigned 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 have had a lot of eyes on this, a lot of attorneys with significant expertise have assessed the facts,” the statement said. “No one sees any tenable claim of illegality.”

The attorney general is tasked with investigating complaints about possible violations of state open records and meetings laws in state and local governments. It hasn’t and shouldn’t oversee investigations of itself, GOP Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said.

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“We need to get the facts on the table,” Wardner said in calling for an outside investigation. “It’s really difficult to conduct an investigation, investigating themselves.”

Some see the deletion of the emails as a conspiracy or coverup, and it has been fodder for talk radio and political bloggers in North Dakota in recent days.

“There will always be doubters, but we need to make this clean and something people will accept,” Wardner said of an outside investigation.

An open records request showed that Brocker asked for Stenehjem’s account to be deleted in an email to an information technology employee on Jan. 29. She wrote that the deletion was approved by then-Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel.

“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’s email said.

The revelation of the deleted emails was made public last week when Wrigley responded to open records requests about a $1.8 million cost overrun on the lease for the attorney general’s office when Stenehjem was in charge. Wrigley had to explain in his response 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 has said he didn’t recall a conversation about Stenehjem’s email account. He also said it could have been deleted as standard procedure.

Democratic Party Chairman Patrick Hart said the email deletions were illegal and called for a criminal investigation Tuesday, either by a county prosecutor’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 felony if a public official “knowingly, without lawful authority, destroys, conceals, removes, or otherwise impairs the verity or availability of a government record.” The open records law doesn’t set requirements for retaining records. A separate records management law requires each agency to establish a retention policy.

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Wrigley did not immediately respond to a question about his agency’s retention policy.

Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney who represents media outlets on issues regarding the state’s open records and meetings laws, said the deletions were likely improper. 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) state’s attorney,” McDonald said.

Wrigley, a former U.S. attorney and lieutenant governor, is running to keep the attorney general’s job in November. Democrats have endorsed Grand Forks lawyer Timothy Lamb for attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement officer.