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Mont., N.D. senators scuffle over stationing of FBI agents in Bakken

A new kind of border battle is brewing over whether two FBI agents and an analyst dispatched to help tackle growing Bakken crime should stay where they are in Sidney, Mont., or hop over the border to Williston, N.D., 45 miles away.

North Dakota Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven have the impression the agents’ stationing in Sidney was only temporary after the FBI struggled to find them housing and office space in Williston, they wrote in a Dec. 26 letter to FBI Director James Comey.

In his own Jan. 7 letter, Montana Sen. Jon Tester wrote Comey’s office saying it had “assured” him that reports of any relocate to Williston were not based on any official FBI decision.

Tester also wrote that moving the agents across the state border “is not an effective response to our region’s growing crime problems” and invited Comey “to see first-hand the challenges faced by our local law enforcement.”

But North Dakota’s senators say Williston is just a more logical place for the agents.

“It’s not even a matter of who told us (that the agents would eventually move to Williston),” Heitkamp said.

“Williston is the heart of what’s happening in the development. If they are going to be truly effective and boots on the ground, Williston is the place for them to be, in terms of serving all of the Bakken region with increased law enforcement.”

She said she wants the resources located as close as possible to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, where the FBI is responsible for investigating serious crimes.

Hoeven said he was “a little surprised” that Tester sent a letter asking that the agents stay in Sidney.

“I believe everybody’s understanding is that the additional agents would be in Williston,” he said.

Kyle Loven, spokesman for the Minneapolis FBI office, which oversees North Dakota operations, said he believes the agents were placed in Sidney “to make certain that our operations could be running” with the first space available.

The three agents are temporary, but he said the Minneapolis regional office, for its part, would like to see a permanent presence in the Bakken.

“Quite frankly, the statistics and the crime figures demonstrate that there’s work to be done there,” he said.

Defendants in federal court in western North Dakota have risen from 126 in 2009 to 336 in 2013, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon said.

He said the larger picture — that there’s been a “robust federal response” but that more help is needed — is more important than where a few agents are based.

Comey’s office has not responded to Hoeven and Heitkamp’s letter.