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Horse-betting businesswoman had legal hold on Stenehjem's emails before deletion

Former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's entire email account was deleted at the direction of a longtime staffer on Jan. 31, three days after his death. Horse-betting business owner Susan Bala said her legal hold on Stenehjem's records should have prevented the elimination of any documents pertaining to her case.

Susan Bala is seen Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014. Special to Forum News Service
Susan Bala is seen Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014. Special to Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — Prior to the deletion of former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's email account, lawyers for the owner of a Fargo horse-betting business placed a legal hold on Stenehjem's records. The revelation adds another layer of complexity to a controversy over the erased emails.

Susan Bala, owner of Racing Services Inc., has been ensnared in a protracted legal battle with the state stemming from her 2005 conviction on illegal gambling charges, which was later overturned. Bala, who spent 17 months in prison, has long sought to recover funds forfeited or lost by her business in the case's aftermath.

Over the last several years, the state and Bala have locked horns in federal bankruptcy court over money North Dakota collected in taxes from Bala's business.

In July 2021, Bala said her lawyers sent Stenehjem, the state's legal representative, a "very comprehensive" litigation hold letter meant to require the preservation of all documents pertaining to her case, including emails.

Stenehjem's entire email account was deleted at the direction of longtime staffer Liz Brocker on Jan. 31 of this year, three days after Stenehjem's death. Bala said her legal hold was in effect at the time Stenehjem's emails were wiped. Brocker has since resigned.

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North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Former North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
File photo

Bala, who said she was "quite surprised" to hear Stenehjem's emails were deleted, told Forum News Service her attorneys have not yet decided how to proceed on the matter.

She won the bankruptcy case earlier this year after an appellate court upheld a ruling that the state had to pay $15.8 million to Bala and her business.

Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who took office about a week after Stenehjem's emails were deleted, said he recently learned of the legal hold letter. Wrigley confirmed that Bala's case concluded during his tenure, which would have marked an end to the legal hold.

Wrigley said Bala's legal team never requested any of Stenehjem's documents. Wrigley added that he has no way of knowing whether any of the deleted emails pertained to Bala's case, meaning it's unclear whether there were records in Stenehjem's inbox that were subject to the legal hold.

Bala said she assumes there was information pertaining to her case in Stenehjem's emails. She added it would be helpful for her lawyers to know whether the emails were "preserved in another fashion."

"I think it’s important to have answers," Bala said.

Wrigley said his office consulted with tech experts about recovering the emails to no avail so far. The Republican officeholder said he's irritated his predecessor's emails are gone, adding he "wouldn’t be happy" if anything subject to Bala's legal hold had been wiped.

In other cases, judges have imposed sanctions on parties to a lawsuit that failed to implement a legal hold, according to an article by the American Bar Association. Legal sanctions can include fines.

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News of Bala's litigation hold was first reported by KFGO.

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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