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Port: University system didn't provide sufficient oversight on problematic Dickinson State procurement

At best, we have a university president who leaned a bit too heavily on some personal relationships while supervising a sloppy procurement. At worst, we have a significant contract that was deliberately steered toward some friends of the president. Even worse, when asked to provide oversight, the NDUS issued some superficial findings completely out of step with just how serious a matter this was.

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Dickinson State University in Dickinson, ND. (Dickinson Press file photo)
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MINOT, N.D. — Dickinson State University is one of the four-year institutions in North Dakota's university system.

Its recent history is not pleasant.

In 2012, an audit revealed that DSU was operating as a diploma mill for hundreds of foreign students .

In 2017, the now-defunct Dickinson State University Foundation was dissolved by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem after pervasive and profound fiscal mismanagement was uncovered by auditors .

So when auditors working for the North Dakota University System took a look at a deeply problematic procurement process around a contractor with personal ties to DSU President Steve Easton, maybe it shouldn't surprise us that their conclusions glossed over most of the problem.

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Sensitive to the aforementioned history, the NDUS officials may have been asking themselves just how much more bad press does DSU need?

In June of 2020, the State of North Dakota directed an appropriation of $862,335 CARES Act dollars to DSU, with $60,000 to be used to help design new course delivery policies. The pandemic created a need for more distance education, and the funding was intended to help DSU accomplish that.

On July 19, 2020, Easton reached out to an old friend from his time as a law professor at the University of Wyoming . He asked this friend, Nick Murdock, who has made at least one sizable contribution to a fund Easton was associated with at UW, for his wife's email. He then emailed Maggi Murdock, indicating that he had $60,000 in funding and needed a contractor. "We are not exactly sure how we would enter into a contract due to bidding requirements," Easton wrote. "If you're interested or know someone who is interested we'd love to hear from you."

By Aug. 11, 2020, DSU had approved an agreement with Maggi Murdock's newly formed company, called Learning Corps, which was formed in July and didn't even have a website domain until 11 days before the agreement was executed.

In the 47 days between when these funds were appropriated by the state and the agreement with Learning Corps, DSU claimed, at one point, to have solicited bids from three different vendors as required by state law.

That didn't happen.

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Dickinson State University President Steve Easton. (Dickinson Press file photo)

A DSU official contacted two other companies about this contract. One was called iDesign, the other Symbiosis. The emailed inquiry asked some generic questions about fee structure and other matters, but at no point was a request for a proposal made. Indeed, DSU received no response at all from iDesign, and while Symbiosis did respond with some answers and a request for a meeting, at no point was a price ever mentioned.

How do you evaluate a bid with no price?

You can't.

That's not a bid.

The North Dakota University System , based in Bismarck, which has oversight of the state's public universities, initiated an investigation into this procurement in response to a call to their fraud hotline, and from that investigation produced two reports.

The first, reported by the Dickinson Press last month, found that the procurement process was improper, but allowed the contract to stand and gave the DSU administration a tap on the wrist (I refuse to use the word "slap" to describe this gloss):

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Let's pause for a moment to consider just how egregiously flawed this process was.

On Aug. 26, a couple of weeks after the agreement with Learning Corps had been executed, a DSU employee named Laura Nelson, then the Interim Vice President for Finance and Administration, emailed DSU employee Anthony Wiler about the alleged bid from Symbiosis. "Below you state that you received a bid from Symbiosis," she wrote. "I don't see an amount."

"The amount was not part of the information I requested," he responded.

"If you didn't request the payment amount, how do you know we received and picked the lowest bid for this purchase?" Nelson asked.

It's a good question, isn't it?

The second NDUS report addressed the personal relationship between Easton and Learning Corps, and claims to have found nothing untoward.

"The evidence did not indicate that President Easton was directly involved in the procurement process nor the selection of the vendor. While he did provide information to Learning Corps LLC pre-bid, this is not a significant issue if the other vendors receive the same information," that report states.

This is an entire truckload of baloney.

Easton initiated contact with the people who ultimately got the contract. He gave them information about the contract, notably the amount of funding available, that the other vendors didn't receive. The other vendors didn't even provide DSU with anything we might reasonably call a bid - one didn't respond and the other requested a meeting it didn't get - and it was Easton himself who was ultimately the approver of the contract. He delegated the authority, citing a time crunch, but he certainly didn't recuse himself.

"I won't be able to review this document in any depth this week," Easton wrote in a 6:07 a.m. email sent Aug. 11. "I think it's time-sensitive, please ask Dr. [Debora] Dragseth to review it on my behalf. If she approves it and Chris P. approves it, please consider it my approval."

The agreement was executed later that same day.

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Dr. Debora Dragseth, professor of business administration at Dickinson State University, asks a question at an open forum. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

By way of illustrating just how close Easton is to Learning Corps and its owner, consider that in a July 28, 2020, email, Murdoch asked Easton about North Dakota-based legal counsel to assist them with the negotiations. Easton gave Murdoch two recommendations, one an attorney he'd previously tried a case with, and the other an attorney at a Bismarck firm he used to work for.

When Easton was asked to explain all this, he dumped responsibility onto Dragseth, suggesting she didn't have the proper amount of experience.

“At some point, I reached out to the person I knew who had the most experience teaching in remote environments, my former colleague at the University of Wyoming, Dr. Maggi Murdock, to see if she could identify someone who might provide this training or if she might be interested in doing so," Easton told the Dickinson Press. "After Dr. Murdock’s indication that she planned to form a company to submit a proposal, I advised Dr. Debora Dragseth, our new Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost, that I would have nothing further to do with the procurement process, as I did not want to suggest a preference for Dr. Murdock’s new firm. As a new VPAA/Provost who had been in that position for only about two weeks, Dr. Dragseth had not been through the level of procurement training needed for the matter."

Dragseth, for her part, defended the process - "the University was acting in good faith and our employees are not guilty of fraud or malfeasance," she said - though she admitted that it might have been "more carefully documented."

What are we left with?

At best, we have a university president who leaned a bit too heavily on some personal relationships while supervising a sloppy procurement. At worst, we have a significant contract that was deliberately steered toward some friends of the president.

Even worse, when asked to provide oversight, the NDUS issued some superficial findings completely out of step with just how serious a matter this was.

We have laws that dictate the procurement process for a reason. They are intended to keep the state's business away from improper dealings, be they real or even just perceived.

Those laws were not followed in this instance, and that deserves more accountability than the NDUS was willing to provide. All the more so because, again, DSU has a long institutional history of problems with fraud and malfeasance that warrants more scrutiny, not less.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

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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