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Port: A state lawmaker got a sweetheart deal from the state and it just plain stinks

Did Rep. Jason Dockter, a Bismarck-area Republican, really think that this sort of dealing, assuming it's all technically in compliance with state law, would pass the smell test with the public? If he didn't, he's a fool, and if he did, you have to wonder why he went ahead with it anyway.

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Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — Lawmakers this week received a report about that cost-overrun fiasco in the Attorney General's Office from state Auditor Josh Gallion's office.

This mess just keeps getting messier.

To catch you up, Attorney General Drew Wrigley was appointed to that post earlier this year to replace his long-time predecessor Wayne Stenehjem who had passed away. Shortly after taking office, Wrigley became aware of a cost-overrun for a new office building that was leased to house staff in his office, including Bureau of Criminal Investigation personnel.

Wrigley immediately referred the matter to the auditor and disclosed the situation to lawmakers. A big part of the problem was the irregular budgeting for the overrun. Lawmakers weren't made aware of the overrun, nor were they aware of the shifts made in the budget for the Attorney General's Office to cover the overrun.

Complicating scrutiny of this situation is the fact that email accounts for both Stenehjem and his deputy Troy Seibel were abruptly deleted by Stenehjem's long-time assistant without any authorization from Wrigley or a supervisor in his office.

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Now comes an audit report , resulting from Wrigley's appeal to the auditor's office, and it turns out the building leased by the Attorney General's Office is co-owned by a state lawmaker.

The contractors who did the refurbishing that drove much of the budget overrun? They're co-owned by the same state lawmaker.

The lawmaker in question is Rep. Jason Dockter, a Republican from District 7 who was first elected in 2012 and is currently running unopposed for re-election on the 2022 ballot.

The auditor's 45-page report is scathing, characterizing the building as ill-equipped for the needs of the AG's office. Dockter's company, the ironically named Stealth Properties, only purchased the building after the state had committed to a 10-year lease.

"Dockter said his company wanted to have a lease in place so it could secure bank loans to buy the building," our Jeremy Turley reports , though he goes on to note that several lawmakers on the committee who received this audit report made it clear that this is not how the state typically conducts its business.

“It looks like a conflict, but we (legislators) are private citizens," Dockter told committee members, per Turley's report . "The lease is market value. It's one thing if (the auditor) found that (the state) paid $3 more per square foot ... But that's not the case."

This defense rings hollow.

I'm not in a position to weigh in on whether the lease the state got on property Dockter's company would eventually buy is truly at market value, but there's no question that a building with a lease with a reliable tenant in place is much more value than a vacant one. We know that Dockter was speaking with state officials to steer them toward this building before he even owned it.

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We know that refurbishing this building to make it work for the attorney general's personnel cost millions — including the $1.8 million budget overrun that was the genesis for this controversy — and that it was companies co-owned by Dockter that were paid for those refurbishments.

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Did Dockter really think that this sort of dealing, assuming it's all technically in compliance with state law, would pass the smell test with the public? If he didn't, he's a fool, and if he did, you have to wonder why he went ahead with it anyway.

Perhaps he didn't believe the deal would ever receive this much scrutiny. Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, a Democrat who sits on the committee, said this deal is "troublesome on so many levels," and she's absolutely right.

Our lawmakers are part-time. They all have day jobs, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with any of them doing business with the state. But would other property companies have had the same sort of access to information and influence that Dockter did as an influential lawmaker?

Not likely. And that's the rub. It sure looks like Dockter used his influence and connections to secure a lucrative deal for multiple companies he owns that turned out to be not such a good deal for the taxpayers.

The legislative audit committee has referred this matter back to Wrigley's office for more investigation, and he promptly agreed to bring in independent investigators from outside his office to look into things. That's the appropriate first step, but there has to be more.

Maybe Dockter ought to pay the taxpayers back some of the profits he made from this deal. Maybe the state's lease agreement with Dockter's company ought to be re-negotiated. But most importantly, we need to review our procurement laws and policies to ensure that this sort of thing can't happen again.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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