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North Dakota Democrats call on state senator to release his texts with child porn suspect

Democrat-NPL Chair Patrick Hart said North Dakota's longest-serving state senator should step down as chair of Legislative Management, a powerful group that decides who sits on committees in the Legislature.

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Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, gives a speech after receiving an award from the Grand Forks East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 28, 2020.
Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — The Democratic Party is asking North Dakota's longest-serving state senator to step down from a legislative leadership post and to release the 72 text messages he exchanged with an inmate suspected of child porn and sex abuse crimes.

The call from Democratic-NPL Chair Patrick Hart came Friday, April 15, in reaction to The Forum’s story on Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican who texted with Nicholas James Morgan-Derosier on Aug. 23 and 24 while Morgan-Derosier was in the Grand Forks County Jail.

Hart is specifically asking that Holmberg step down from his position as chairman of Legislative Management, a body that determines interim studies and decides who serves on which committees in the North Dakota Legislature.

Legislative Management, which consists of 17 lawmakers, can accept, reject or amend committee reports in between the regular biennial sessions, according to the Legislature's website.

“As the chair of Legislative Management, Sen. Holmberg is in a very powerful position — one that demands both integrity and public trust,” Hart said in a statement. “Yet, instead of working to come up with creative solutions to fix problems in our state, he’s exchanging text messages with someone who has been federally indicted for child porn, sexual abuse and trafficking.”

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The Forum's story, published Friday, reported that when asked to share the text messages, Holmberg told a reporter he didn't have them.

"They're just gone," Holmberg said Thursday.

Hart said The Forum's story raised “disturbing questions” and the public deserves answers.

“Saying texts he sent to a person in jail suspected of child porn and sex abuse crimes are ‘just gone,’ is not good enough,” Hart said. “Until all the facts of this case are known, and until Sen. Holmberg is able to establish that he is not connected to these horrific charges, it is in the best interests of our state and our people that he step down as chair of Legislative Management effective immediately.”

Holmberg did not answer a phone call from The Forum on Friday, and his voicemail was not set up. He did not immediately return an email sent by The Forum asking for a response to Hart's comments.

North Dakota GOP Chair Perrie Schafer also did not immediately return a voicemail left by the newspaper.

Holmberg announced in March that he will not seek reelection and will retire at the end of this year, after serving as a state senator since 1976. In announcing his retirement , Holmberg cited medical issues that “do not afford me the cognitive ability to accurately perform the work required and expected of a senator to represent the people of Grand Forks in the 2023 legislative session.”

Morgan-Derosier, 34, faced child porn charges in Grand Forks County District Court at the time he and Holmberg exchanged text messages, but those charges have been dismissed to make way for federal prosecution.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota has accused Morgan-Derosier of having thousands of images depicting child sex abuse. He also allegedly took two children, who were under 10 years old at the time, from their Twin Cities-area home to his Grand Forks residence in early 2020 with the intent of sexually abusing them, according to prosecutors.

Through a public records request to the Grand Forks County Jail, The Forum obtained a list of phone numbers Morgan-Derosier contacted while incarcerated. Holmberg’s phone number was on that list, and text logs from the jail showed they exchanged 65 messages in a two-hour period on Aug. 23, and seven messages the next day.

According to a transcript of Morgan-Derosier’s Jan. 4 detention hearing, federal prosecutor Jennifer Puhl laid out to Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal a pattern of Morgan-Derosier exploiting individuals. That included text messages exchanged between Morgan-Derosier and an unnamed 77-year-old Grand Forks man who asked or told Morgan-Derosier that “he wants him to bring (Morgan-Derosier’s boyfriend) over to his house to give him a massage,” Puhl told the judge. The boyfriend was 19 or 20 years old at the time, according to the transcript.

“Now, he (the boyfriend) does not consider himself a victim, no question, but I think what we’re seeing, of course, is exploitation,” Puhl told the judge. “At the time of the defendant’s arrest, law enforcement asked (the boyfriend) whether he was aware that the defendant was serving him up to a seven — or a 77-year-old man, and (the boyfriend) said no, Your Honor.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to name the 77-year-old Grand Forks man, and it wouldn't say whether the man was under investigation.

Holmberg, who was 77 years old at the time of the text exchanges, said in phone interviews that his texts with Morgan-Derosier were about a “variety of things,” including patio work Morgan-Derosier did for the senator. The two have known each other for two years, Holmberg added.

When asked about the massage request, Holmberg told The Forum he didn’t know what a reporter was talking about.

Inmates can pay money to use a text messaging service in jail, which is what Morgan-Derosier did, a jail official confirmed.

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Holmberg said he didn’t know Morgan-Derosier was in jail when the text exchanges occurred. The senator said he changed his phone number sometime after the August text exchanges with Morgan-Derosier.

In a Friday tweet, Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, also called on Holmberg to make the text messages public.

The Grand Forks County Jail and U.S. Attorney's Office denied The Forum's requests to see the text messages.

Legislators previously approved a law to make their correspondence with constituents confidential. Boschee told The Forum he still backs that law, saying it is important to protect the privacy of residents who bring up sensitive issues to lawmakers.

“I think the question in doubt is, is protection that is meant for the work that we do as legislators being used for a personal communication. I don’t think that is appropriate,” Boschee said.

Boschee said he hasn’t gotten to the point of asking Holmberg to step down from leadership positions or resign immediately from office.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Boschee said. “All I see is, at this point, he’s been communicating with someone who has crimes against children, but there is no indication that Sen. Holmberg was a part of anything or knows anything anymore than the rest of us.”

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Dickinson Republican, said he is waiting to see what information comes to light before making any decisions about Holmberg.

“It’s a story, but there is nothing other than he has been associating with a felon,” Wardner said, adding that it’s immoral to punish anyone who hasn’t done anything wrong.

Holmberg and Wardner talked about The Forum story Friday morning, the senate majority leader said. Wardner added he was unaware of the texts until after the article was published online.

Wardner and Boschee serve on Legislative Management with Holmberg.

Holmberg also serves on the Emergency Commission, which allocates federal relief funds in the state. He chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and procedural Rules Committee.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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