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Hoeven, Cramer worked to oppose Fufeng project behind the scenes, emails show

Grand Forks leaders expressed confusion and frustration over the Republican senators’ decision to oppose the project before the conclusion of a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

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U.S. Sens. Kevin Cramer (left) and John Hoeven, both R-N.D.
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BISMARCK — As scrutiny of the proposed Fufeng corn mill mounted, North Dakota’s two U.S. senators privately urged Grand Forks officials to abandon the project before a national security review yielded any results, according to records obtained by Forum News Service.

Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer say their conversations with city and state officials were attempts to raise legitimate concerns about a Chinese-owned company operating near Grand Forks Air Force Base and a nearby aerospace business park.

City leaders expressed confusion and frustration over the Republican senators’ decision to oppose the project before the conclusion of a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which Hoeven and Cramer helped to initiate.

“It makes no sense. It’s illogical,” Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande said of the senators’ timing in dismissing the controversial project.

Email records also reveal Hoeven’s office appeared to have worked with a private aerospace company on a press release critical of the Fufeng project, though Hoeven and the firm deny the involvement of the senator's employees.

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The Republican senators’ objection to the project, which is now fully public, has lent two influential voices to a fervent local opposition that continues to sound alarm bells over Fufeng’s Chinese ties. The proposed mill, first announced last year, has drawn backlash from across the U.S. as the country’s relationship with China grows increasingly strained. Among the concerns are the proposed plant’s proximity to the base, prompting some to worry that the plant could be a security concern.

The project remains in limbo as city leaders await the results of the much-anticipated federal CFIUS review.

A press release that never saw daylight

In July, Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer called on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to review the plan for a $700 million corn mill operated by Fufeng USA, an American subsidiary of a Chinese firm.

The two officeholders didn’t wait for the federal panel to finish its analysis before declaring in late August the project should be scrapped due to national security concerns.

A week earlier, Hoeven and Cramer had tried and failed to persuade Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, Gov. Doug Burgum and U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., to sign on to a press release that criticized the CFIUS process for lacking transparency and cited “unaddressed security concerns” with the Fufeng project.

Following an Aug. 18 phone call between the congressional delegation, Burgum and Bochenski, Hoeven spokesman Alex Finken invited the parties to sign their names to a joint statement that advised Grand Forks to discontinue the planned corn mill.

“China’s growing aggression and espionage efforts represent a real threat to our nation. After consulting with military leaders as well as the Grand Sky tenants, our concerns with the Fufeng Group’s project have not been alleviated, rather they have increased,” said the proposed statement.

In reply to Finken, Bochenski said the proposed statement was “an inaccurate depiction of the (phone) conversation” and he would not sign it. The mayor asked that the CFIUS review requested by the senators be allowed to finish before any decisions about the project are made.

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“I was still looking for some concrete facts and documents — anything firsthand that would have been useful. There wasn’t really anything concrete that anybody had, national security-wise,” Bochenski told Forum News Service in November.

Armstrong has also said he is waiting for the CFIUS review before passing judgment on the project. Burgum has said he appreciates the senators’ concerns but respects local officials’ desire to wait for the federal review.

The proposed joint statement was never publicly released.

Hoeven said his staff sent the proposed press release to see if the parties could hammer out a statement they all favored. It was soon clear they couldn’t, Hoeven said.

Bochenski said he was confused why the senators wanted to publicize their opposition to the Fufeng project before the CFIUS review could finish.

When asked about the senators’ intentions, Sande said he believes Cramer doesn’t have a pragmatic approach to China because he holds a bias against the country based on its communist government.

Sande, a proponent of the Fufeng project, said he thinks “Sen. Hoeven was in an election battle and perhaps took some steps to help himself get elected.”

Both of Hoeven’s opponents in the November election — Democrat Katrina Christiansen and independent conservative Rick Becker — voiced their disapproval of the project. Hoeven won the race in a landslide.

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“It is peculiar that after (Hoeven and Cramer) suggested we use CFIUS, they would come out and say, ‘CFIUS isn’t transparent and they won’t give us any good information anyway,’” Sande said.

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Grand Forks mayor Brandon Bochenski comments before the start of Thursday's BRIC roundtable (Base Retention and Investment Committee) at city hall. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Both Hoeven and Cramer said they are concerned the CFIUS review won’t transparently identify national security concerns to city leaders. (Fufeng USA has pledged to turn over materials received from CFIUS to the city, making them public documents.)

The senators requested the federal panel’s assistance to aid city leaders who had asked for help in evaluating any national security implications, Cramer said.

Cramer noted that he was outwardly critical of the project months before recommending the CFIUS review. From the announcement of the Fufeng project a year ago, Cramer said he has been worried about allowing a Chinese-controlled company to further infiltrate the country’s food supply chain. Since at least February, Cramer has shared his skepticism of the project in media interviews.

Hoeven said his hang-ups with the project are purely based on security concerns and have nothing to do with politics or his recent reelection bid.

“Look at what we’ve gone through. I think it shows that I was very careful … to work with the city and be as helpful to them as I could in identifying and informing them of security concerns,” Hoeven said.

Both senators said they have received information about the Fufeng project in confidential settings that raises national security concerns, though they declined to offer more details.

A spokeswoman for Fufeng USA declined to comment on this story.

Mayor assumed it would be an ‘organic decision’

About two weeks after Hoeven staked his opposition to the Fufeng project, Bochenski received an email from an executive at General Atomics, a defense and aerospace corporation that occupies part of the Grand Sky business park west of the city.

Bart Roper, vice president of strategic development for the firm’s aeronautical systems division, wrote in the Sept. 8 email that he had “been working with Josh Carter in Senator Hoeven’s office on a potential press release” about the Fufeng project.

Roper attached a draft of a press release from General Atomics that called on the U.S. government to halt the Fufeng project due to the “tremendous risk” posed by locating a Chinese-owned company near the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the Grand Sky business park.

In his response to Roper, Bochenski noted that he’s not sure the proposed press release was meant to be sent to him and that the document appeared to have been “manufactured in conjunction with Senator Hoeven’s office.”

“Senator Hoeven had mentioned he could have General Atomics write a letter opposing the project, we had assumed that would be an organic decision made by GA, that doesn't appear to be the case,” Bochenski wrote.

Roper wrote back to Bochenski on Sept. 20 to tell the mayor General Atomics would be sending out the press release.

Bochenski responded by questioning why Roper had not responded to a request for a phone call. The mayor further pressed Roper on how General Atomics manages to co-exist with Chinese-owned Cirrus Aircraft, which runs a manufacturing facility in Grand Forks.

Hoeven told Forum News Service his staff did not help General Atomics create the press release despite what Roper told Bochenski. His office declined to provide Forum News Service with emails between adviser Josh Carter and Roper. (Email records from congressional offices are not subject to open records laws.)

General Atomics spokesman C. Mark Brinkley said he wrote the press release and denied that Hoeven’s office helped craft it.

“At our discretion, we routinely offer impacted groups an opportunity to review draft press releases and other public statements prior to release,” Brinkley said in an email. “Mr. Roper worked with various individuals to secure reviews. No changes were made to our statement by any outside entities.”

Bochenski said he’s not sure what to think about the draft press release, adding that it’s unfortunate he didn’t get to talk over the Fufeng project with General Atomics before the company came out in opposition.

Sande and Bochenski agree that General Atomics’ public position on Fufeng made county officials nervous about the project. General Atomics is a major economic engine for the county.

County commissioners scheduled a November meeting to gather input on the Fufeng project but canceled it due to poor weather.

All Fufeng-specific construction is on hold until the city receives the final CFIUS report. A preliminary version of the report is expected to be released on Dec. 12.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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