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State offices aided on dealing with media; Public relations firm provided ‘talking points’ to state offices about Rauschenberger’s drinking

BISMARCK – Campaign advisor Odney Advertising provided talking points for officials in the North Dakota tax commissioner’s office and governor’s office to use when responding to questions related to Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger’s decision to take a leave of absence for alcohol treatment, email records show.

In a Sept. 5 email titled “Suggested Talking Points re: Ryan Rauschenberger,” former tax commissioner Cory Fong —who left the office Dec. 31 to take a job with Odney, leading to Rauschenberger’s appointment by Gov. Jack Dalrymple — laid out answers to several anticipated questions about Rauschenberger’s absence.

One question related to how much work Rauschenberger had missed over the past several weeks and months due to his treatment and condition.

Fong’s suggested answer read: “Ryan has been out of the office for periods of time for the in-patient and out-patient treatment he has been seeking. And for that reason he has missed some of the meetings he would normally have attended. Outside of that and because of the nature of the office and duties of an elected official, not to mention the campaign, it’s virtually impossible for us to determine how much time Ryan has been out of the office due to his illness during these past several weeks and months v. attending meetings, events, or campaigning.”

The email, obtained by Forum News Service through an open records request, also suggested answers for questions about who was in charge of the Tax Department in Rauschenberger’s absence and whether the agency was running smoothly.

Fong sent the email to the personal email accounts of Deputy Tax Commissioner Joe Morrissette, Tax Department Executive Assistant Peggy Brintnell and Kayla Effertz, a senior policy advisor to the governor. Rauschenberger’s father, Ron Rauschenberger, is Dalrymple’s chief of staff.

Morrissette said Friday that he had asked that emails from the campaign be sent to his personal account to keep them separate from his official state email account. He said he didn’t ask for the talking points, and when he received the email, “Honestly, I looked at it and deleted it.”

“I was a little uncomfortable with it because I don’t want it to look like they’re directing what we say,” he said. “But it was really just their — you know, an appropriate role for a media public relations agency.”

Democrats have long complained that Odney, which has offices in Bismarck, Fargo, Minot and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, has too much influence in North Dakota’s Republican-dominated state government.

Odney’s contracts with various state agencies have earned the company nearly $23.8 million dating back to the 2009-2011 biennium, according to a state database. The state has paid the company more than $5.7 million so far in the current two-year budget cycle.

Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Bob Valeu on Friday blasted the talking points email as “disturbing” and “totally unacceptable.”

“I’m very concerned about the influence that an advertising agency seems to have in terms of developing political spin for the Tax Department and potentially other agencies as well, especially when that private advertising agency receives millions of dollars in (state) contracts,” he said in a phone interview. “They have a vested interest in maintaining the control of those agencies by the Republican Party, and that is extremely disturbing and really raises the question about what is going on in state government right now.”

Odney President Pat Finken noted the talking points were merely suggested.

“This is common practice for us, to not only share with the client, but anybody that might have anything to do with the issue that we’re addressing,” he said Friday, adding, “It is the way that all PR firms work.”

Finken also defended Odney’s contracts with the state, saying the company goes through the same procurement and competitive bidding process as other firms.

“We don’t win them all, but we have won some,” he said, estimating state contracts account for “maybe 15 percent” of Odney’s overall business.

Rauschenberger is running for his first full four-year term against Democrat Jason Astrup, a Fargo attorney.

In a statement distributed through Odney, Rauschenberger announced Sept. 4 that he was taking a temporary unpaid leave of absence to seek additional professional help, after acknowledging a day earlier that he had been receiving in-patient and out-patient treatment.

That revelation came on the heels of news that he had lent his 2007 Chevy Tahoe to an alleged drunken driver who rolled the vehicle Sept. 2 in Mandan. Rauschenberger came under additional scrutiny Sept. 3 when a police report revealed that he had rear-ended a vehicle in north Bismarck about 6 1/2 hours before the rollover crash.

Rauschenberger’s aunt, Sindy Keller of Fargo, said Friday he is “doing well” at a treatment center in Minnesota.

“This was a good process, and we just are supporting him 100 percent,” she said. “He is confident that he’ll be back and ready to continue the campaign and work hard at the tax commissioner’s position.”

Keller said Rauschenberger took a 30-day leave of absence and will likely return to the office close to the end of that period.

Finken, who has contributed $5,000 to Rauschenberger’s campaign, said the 31-year-old is “fully committed to running for tax commissioner.”

“As far as the campaign, it continues,” he said.

Valeu has questioned when the governor and his staff knew about Rauschenberger’s problem with alcohol and whether there was an attempt to cover it up. Dalrymple has said through a spokesman that he first learned about it when he was told July 21 that Rauschenberger had sought treatment.

Ron Rauschenberger said Friday that he first found out sometime in June that his son was having alcohol issues. He said he hadn’t noticed that his son was missing a lot of work because the tax commissioner’s job duties often take him out of the office.

“He talked to me about it. I kind of asked him, and he brought it up to me that he’s going to get some help. I mean, he stepped forward himself each time saying ‘I’m going to get some help,’ so that’s good,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.