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Staffer deleted email account of late North Dakota attorney general days after his death

While responding to Forum News Service's records request about a budget overrun, North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said he learned earlier this month that former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's email account was deleted on Jan. 31 — three days after his death.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Former North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said an undisclosed employee of his office deleted the email accounts belonging to former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and former Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel.

While responding to Forum News Service's records request about a budget overrun in the office, Wrigley said he learned earlier this month that Stenehjem's email account was deleted on Jan. 31 — three days after his death.

Wrigley said he also found that Seibel's email account was deleted on May 23, about two months after his resignation. Wrigley, who took office in February, said the unnamed employee eliminated Seibel's account without Wrigley's knowledge or approval.

The email accounts have since been deemed unretreivable by state information technology employees, but some of Seibel's emails have been located in a file on his old laptop.

The written and electronic correspondence of most state officials, including employees of the attorney general's office, is considered a public record in North Dakota.

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North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley.
Chris Flynn/The Forum

Wrigley declined to name the employee who deleted the emails or disclose whether the employee will be disciplined, saying it was an "internal matter." However, the Republican officeholder said he would reveal the name of the employee "eventually."

The unnamed employee said Seibel approved the elimination of the email accounts, according to Wrigley.

Seibel told Forum News Service he does not recall having any conversation or sending any email about Stenehjem's email account after he died. Seibel also said he wouldn't have had any authority or ability to delete his email account after he resigned in March.

Wrigley said deleting the email accounts was "obviously concerning" and "a bad call," but it did not violate state law or any internal policy because there were no pending records requests asking for the emails. However, he said the office does not have an established policy of deleting email accounts once an employee has left, adding that email records should ideally be maintained "forever."

Seibel disagreed and said it was customary for the state to wipe out email accounts after an employee had left, though he wished his account were "still there."

Troy-Seibel.jpg
Former North Dakota Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel.
Submitted photo

Jack McDonald, an attorney and lobbyist with the North Dakota Newspaper Association, likened deleting the email accounts to shredding public records from a filing cabinet in the office.

“In effect, public records were destroyed,” McDonald said.

While the unnamed employee may not have violated the law, McDonald said the erasure of the accounts is "disturbing" and "very disappointing."

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Forum News Service requested correspondence from Stenehjem and Seibel about a $1.8 million cost overrun associated with a leased office building.

Wrigley told lawmakers in June his predecessors racked up the unanticipated costs while making specifications to a leased building and waited six months to tell their office's budgeting wing about the problem. Seibel disputes Wrigley's characterization of the budgetary matter and said the office did nothing wrong.

Two legislative panels are now investigating the budget overrun.

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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