The North Dakota University System has had to review thousands of documents for what they think are politically motivated open records requests.

North Dakota open records law states public entities, such as the University System, must provide copies of any kept records, such as emails, meeting minutes and financial data, to anyone who requests it. The time-consuming part lies in redacting information that isn't legal to distribute, such as bank information, social security numbers and other sensitive personal information.

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At an Oct. 2 State Board of Higher Education meeting, Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said he felt the requests are politically motivated.

"Open records law is certainly designed to ensure transparent government," he said. "We all agree on the need for that, but what has happened is these laws are being used for some politically motivated individuals. Now our communications have become a fishing pond in which these individuals cast wide nets in the hope of finding something to use against political opponents or for political purposes."

Requests

This year, the University System documented 40 open records requests in total, as of Sept. 8, from a variety of news outlets, legislators and private citizens. Information requested ranged from employee retirement plan data to financial information on the University of North Dakota's parking ramp.

University System Chief of Staff and Ethics Officer Murray Sagsveen said that number encompasses requests the system had to do a substantial amount of work on and that if, for example, a staff member received a request over the phone and was able to provide the information immediately, it wasn't included in the count.

But about 75 percent of those substantial requests came from the Legislative Council, legislative committees or individual legislators.

Sagsveen said besides himself, the system has two other lawyers working mostly on open records requests.

"The volume of requests for open records is enormous," Skogen said at the Oct. 2 meeting. "You currently have attorneys spending the lion's share of their time reviewing and redacting communications to turn over to requesters."

Sagsveen also said from Sept. 25 to Oct. 2 alone, the system received 14 more open records requests.

Digging deeper

One of the larger requests came in 2013, when the Legislative Council asked for all of the emails to and from every university president from July 1, 2012, to April 28, 2013. These dates encompassed several controversial incidents surrounding North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani and UND President Robert Kelley, including the buyout of then-SBHE Chancellor Hamid Shirvani's contract.

The university system has spent more than 1,100 hours reviewing those 228,500 pages of emails.

Sagsveen said currently only about 55 percent, or about 125,000 emails, had been gone through and turned over to the council. On average, Sagsveen said a person can review and redact about 100 pages an hour.

"It's a grueling process because if you don't turn over the information, you've violated state law, but if you've turned over the wrong information, you've violated federal law," he said.

It's still debated as to exactly when, but around the time the council made the request, more than 45,000 emails were deleted from Bresciani's email account, according to Forum Communication Co. archived articles. University officials maintained the delete was because of an "auto-purge" function and 1,950 pages of emails were subsequently turned over to the council.

An attorney general opinion in November of that year stated the incident violated open records law.

Compromising

Sagsveen said the system is working with the Legislative Council to narrow down future requests so the turnover for information is quicker and doesn't require so many hours of lawyer time.

For example, the NDUS recently received a request from the Legislative Council for about 15,000 pages worth of emails, which was subsequently narrowed down after a discussion about what exactly the council was looking for.

"There's a lot of dialogue now back and forth with the Legislative Council and I think we have a fairly good process," Sagsveen said. "We're trying to focus the requests."