FARGO — Prominent Democrats in North Dakota are under fire for donating money to help with the defense of a Lisbon man accused of taking an ax to a Republican U.S. senator’s office entrance in downtown Fargo.
North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen, party official Ellie Shockley and Ellen Chaffee, who ran as a Democrat for lieutenant governor in 2012, gave money to a GoFundMe account meant to help Thomas Alexander Starks. The 30-year-old man allegedly used an ax to smash the intercom system and entrance windows of Sen. John Hoeven’s office on Dec. 21 at 123 Broadway N.
Starks could face up to five years in prison if convicted of a Class C felony charge of criminal mischief in state court. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota is investigating the incident, meaning Starks could also face charges in federal court.
Media attempts to reach Starks have been unsuccessful. His attorney, Daniel Bertsch, did not return a message left Wednesday, Jan. 6.
Starks' wife started the GoFundMe account. As of Wednesday evening, 53 people had donated more than $6,600. She set a goal of $15,000 to cover legal costs for a “quality defender” they can’t readily afford, according to the account.
On the page, Starks' wife said her husband is “someone working to build a better world for all” and a “good and innocent man.”
“Tas (Thomas) would never pointlessly put his family’s well-being in jeopardy with reckless vandalism,” she wrote. “Indeed, Tas makes his political statements openly and non-violently.”
Oversen donated $100 to the fund, though her name has disappeared from the list of donors. In a statement, she said she made the donation without considering Starks’ guilt. An attorney herself, she said she believes everyone facing criminal allegations “deserves a full and rigorous defense.”
In a Wednesday statement, North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg criticized Democrats who donated to the fund.
“It is inexcusable that Chairwoman Oversen would be personally involved in supporting a far-left extremist whose violent actions constitute an assault on our democracy,” Berg said. “Video evidence leaves little in doubt about this attack, so it is unfathomable why ND Dem-NPL officials would lend their name and financial support to a man they refer to as ‘innocent.’ … We will not be intimidated by violence and extremism – even when it is explicitly and sadly endorsed by our opposition.”
Oversen said she condemns violence against elected officials and public property. She added that her donation does not reflect her views of what happened at Hoeven’s office.
“The attack on me by Republicans is a thinly veiled attempt to distract us from the very real attack on our democracy being perpetrated by members of their own party, this very moment, in the halls of Congress, which were taken over moments ago by an out of control mob,” Oversen said. “This is terrifying.”
She was referring to protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol building as the Senate debated formalizing former Vice President Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump.
In response to Oversen, North Dakota GOP spokesperson Corby Kemmer said the violence in D.C. and at Hoeven's office are equally wrong.
"If Chairman Berg wrote a personal check to any of the terrorists desecrating our" U.S. Capitol, then Oversen "might have a leg to stand on," Kemmer said.
Shockley, who represents southwest North Dakota on the Democratic-NPL Party's executive committee, was one of the first to donate to the fund, giving $500. She has promoted the fund on social media. Shockley is a North Dakota Women’s Network board member and writes a column for The Bismarck Tribune.
She said she donated to the fund because Starks is her friend and she cares about his family getting through this.
"I think it is important for us all to remember that human relationships should come before political expediency," she said. "My financial support for Tas has nothing to do with his or my political views. What I saw was that my friend's family was in a tough spot, and I felt called to help."
Chaffee, who helped lead efforts in 2018 that persuaded North Dakotans to approve a measure to create an ethics commission, donated $100 to Starks’ fund. She served as the president for Valley City State University and Mayville State University.
Messages left for Chaffee on Wednesday were not returned.