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Stenehjem: University System broke open records law over deleted emails

BISMARCK – The state’s attorney general says the North Dakota University System violated open records laws by failing to turn over in a timely matter a batch of 43,000-plus emails deleted from North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani’s account earlier this year.

But in his opinion released Friday on the deleted emails saga that has stretched on for months, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem indicated the reason Bresciani’s emails were deleted might remain a mystery.

NDSU officials maintain the deletion was caused by a new auto purge function in the email system. According to the attorney general’s opinion released Friday, officials from the University System think the emails were purposefully deleted after the open records request, as some state lawmakers have suggested.

“The only way to resolve this difference in opinion would be to know the exact date President Bresciani’s computer files were purged,” Stenehjem wrote in the opinion.

That will be impossible, Stenehjem concluded, because University System staff “chose not to examine the disaster recovery back-up tape from Microsoft,” a tool that he said could have established when the files were deleted.

“Without the back-up tape, this office has been provided only with contradictory opinions and theories” regarding the deletion, Stenehjem wrote.

The question of when, how and why Bresciani’s emails were deleted first emerged in late June, when the Legislative Council raised concerns that many of the NDSU president’s messages had been erased when its request for his communication turned up fewer results than anticipated. On behalf of an unnamed legislator, the council submitted a request for Bresciani’s correspondence on April 29.

Staff from the University System – which oversees the state’s 11 public colleges and universities – eventually revealed that more than 43,000 of Bresciani’s emails had been recovered in a folder storing deleted emails.

Stenehjem concluded the University System violated the state’s open records law “when it failed to review emails it knew it had in its possession in response to an open records request.”

The Legislative Council also asked Stenehjem to weigh in on whether the emails NDSU turned over were over-redacted for sensitive information.

Stenehjem’s opinion said the records were properly redacted.

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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