FARGO - City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn wants the world to know he didn't collude with Breitbart, an alt-right national news outlet that sent a reporter to cover his criticism of refugee resettlement practices in October.
The city sent out a news release last week disclosing that the High Plains Reader (HPR), a local alternative newspaper owned in part by City Commissioner John Strand, had filed an open-records request to see if Piepkorn had corresponded by email with Breitbart. Emails older than six months had been deleted, per city policy, and no correspondence was found.
"Commissioner Piepkorn requested that this information be provided to members of the media," the news release said.
Strand said he keeps himself isolated from news decisions and didn't coordinate with HPR to target Piepkorn.
HPR reporter Chris Hagen said he filed the request May 10 to find out if there was a connection between Piepkorn and Breitbart. He said the city told him it had no such email on May 23.
Piepkorn didn't return a call from The Forum, but he did talk to a radio talk show on Monday, Aug. 7, explaining his thoughts. "Obviously, they're trying to discredit me," he told Steve Hallstrom of AM 1100 The Flag. But even as he appears to distance himself from Breitbart, he also boasted about his influence on the Trump administration's ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Hagen said he thought a reporter for a national publication like Breitbart being in town on the same day that Piepkorn criticized the cost of resettling refugees here was too much of a coincidence, so he checked it out. He said open-records requests are filed all the time by journalists and many, like this one, turn up empty.
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Breitbart's reporter, Lee Stranahan, was at the Oct. 10 City Commission meeting when commissioners were scheduled to discuss a staff report explaining resettlement costs.
Piepkorn, who requested that report, told Stranahan after the meeting he was pleased that one of his colleagues, Strand, had supported him in requesting additional study even though Strand "has his own agenda."
Strand complained about the insinuation at the next commission meeting on Oct. 24.
It wasn't until May that Raul Gomez, another HPR owner, and Hagen decided to file an open-records request on Piepkorn's city email, according to both. They quickly found out from the city that they were too late.
The city keeps email correspondence for six months because the City Attorney's Office decided that was a reasonable period, according to city spokesman Gregg Schildberger.
Though Breitbart talked with Piepkorn in October and Hagen requested correspondence from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31, the city was only able to check emails from Nov. 14 to Dec. 31.
Hagen said he had just started writing about refugees at that time having been busy covering protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Morton County. He simply hadn't thought to request Piepkorn's email until that point.
Gomez said he found it strange that Piepkorn would call attention to an old open-records request when news media has made many such requests without the city announcing them. "I wonder what the intent of putting out such a press release is? Is it to motivate us to not make those requests in the future? Is it to intimidate us, like 'I know what you did last summer' kind of intimidation? I'm not sure."
Strand said Gomez is the one who works closely with news staff while he manages HPR's business side, such as paying the bills. "I keep a pretty insulated safe distance from our content decisions," he said, especially where city business is concerned because he's a city leader.
Stranahan has since quit Breitbart over differences with management. He now has a radio show on Sputnik, a news agency run by the Russian government.
On the radio, Piepkorn's main concern seemed to be that HPR wanted to portray him as a tool of Steve Bannon and the Trump administration when, in reality, he's happy to help.
"What they thought was that they were basically telling me what to do giving me instructions when actually what happened - if you look back at the initial executive orders for refugee restrictions, they actually used quite a bit of my material in the original one," Piepkorn told Hallstrom, the host. "So that was kind of what went down."
"That's gotta be a good feeling for you then, no?" Hallstrom said.
"That's very flattering," Piepkorn said. "Obviously that's - to be a humble little city commissioner in Fargo, N.D., to see that was pretty cool."