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Mike Jacobs: Email dump clouds state’s reputation for sunshine

This is the most egregious slap at North Dakota’s tradition of open government.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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Last week’s news that Wayne Stenehjem’s email trove had been deleted was shocking – so shocking I can’t find an adjective to describe it. Really shocking, in other words.

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Stenehjem died in December after more than 20 years as the state’s attorney general. He served longer in that office than any other person and longer than any governor. He had an enormous impact on North Dakota in very many ways.

So the last impact of dumping his email is on the historical record. Keeping these records is vital. Gubernatorial papers go to the state archive.

That’s the long-term impact.

Dumping the email has a short-term impact, too. To begin with, it breaches one of the most firmly entrenched traits of the state’s political system. Few states – perhaps only Florida – have broader “sunshine” laws than North Dakota, despite legislative chipping away at open meetings laws. Open records laws have been nearly sacrosanct until last week.

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True enough, the reaction to the news set off a flurry of outraged editorials in the state’s newspapers, and some political leaders called for an investigation. To his very great credit, Rich Wardner of Dickinson was among these. He’s the Republican majority leader in the state Senate.

Drew Wrigley, the man appointed to the attorney general’s job earlier this year, to finish Stenehjem’s unexpired term, said he considers the matter closed because – as the Bismarck Tribune reported – “he’s seen no evidence of ‘nefarious intent.’”

Of course, it’s hard to know what nefarious intent might mean.

One thing is clear, though. Dumping the emails didn’t do anything but damage to Stenehjem’s reputation. The act only raises suspicions.

What might someone be trying to hide?

The decision to dump the emails was made by Liz Brocker, Stenehjem’s longtime assistant who acted as an office manager. She worked with Stenehjem for 21 years.

Brocker acknowledged that part of her motivation, at least, was so that “no one has an opportunity to make an open record request for his emails.”

But that’s not how this works.

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North Dakotans assume that our public officials will do business in public and that they’ll keep track of what they do, who they deal with, how policy is determined and how decisions are made.

Now the question becomes, can these emails be saved?

Likely some of them can. Copies might exist in the email accounts of other state officials. Potentially some went to individuals or companies doing business with the state.

Attorney General Wrigley has little interest in attempting to revive the emails. Actually none. His attitude appears to be, “They’re just gone.” His actual word choice was “unretrievable.”

Predictably, state Democrats have made an issue of the dump. The party’s chair, Patrick Hart, called for an outside investigation and said Wrigley should refer the matter to the Burleigh County state’s attorney. The state capitol building is in Burleigh County, so that would be an appropriate referral.

Wardner indicated that some agency or office other than the attorney general should take a look. “If you have the same agency investigate themselves, even if they’re 100 percent correct, people are going to doubt it,” he told The Bismarck Tribune.

That gets to the crux of the matter: North Dakotans want to be able to trust elected officials.

“Until someone gets the facts out, there’s going to be all kinds of innuendos, I guess, that are going to be prevalent,” Wardner told the Tribune.

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To be clear, I have no knowledge, not even an inkling, that there was “nefarious intent.” More likely it was a case of a loyal and dedicated employee protecting her boss.

Still it was a huge mistake – especially because it involves the attorney general’s office, the office that we all rely on to enforce the law.

To be clear, I am not implying any funny business here. I knew Stenehjem well and admired him greatly, though I didn’t always appreciate his opinions.

He was a zealous supporter of the state’s open meetings and open records laws. The North Dakota Newspaper Association honored him with sunshine awards. I’ve been affiliated with NDNA for more than 50 years, and in that long stretch of time, this is the most egregious slap at North Dakota’s tradition of open government – a reputation that earned North Dakota a reputation as “a sunshine state.”

The sad irony is that Stenehjem himself was an architect of that tradition and a steadfast supporter of it.

It’s a big dark cloud. It shouldn’t have happened. Wardner and Hart are right. It ought to be investigated.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald. 

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
Opinion by Mike Jacobs
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