Attorney General Drew Wrigley: More state guidance on public records would be welcomed
If someone pushes an effort in the Legislature, "I will be a strong advocate for it," Wrigley said. "They would have the full engagement of the AG’s office, under my leadership."
GRAND FORKS — North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley hopes state lawmakers will act in an upcoming session to further tighten rules and regulations regarding public records. And if they do, he said, they can count on his office’s “full engagement” along the way.
Wrigley’s comments came days after it was learned that employees in the Attorney General’s Office deleted the email account of late Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem shortly after his death, as well as the account of former Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel upon his resignation from the office four months later.
“There should be some guidance,” Wrigley told the Grand Forks Herald. “I don’t know if (the Attorney General’s Office staff) are the ones to push for it, but I will be a strong advocate for it. They would have the full engagement of the AG’s office, under my leadership. We would be glad to have open discussions with anybody who is pushing it, or who has legislative proposals.”
The news of the mass deletion of email files created a stir across the state last week, especially considering Stenehjem’s reported work over the years to promote openness and transparency in state government . Upon Stenehjem’s January death – he died of cardiac arrest, not long after announcing his current term would be his last – he was lauded for his efforts toward open government, not only as attorney general but also as a state lawmaker before that.
“It was just one of those issues where he was always there,” Jack McDonald, a longtime lawyer for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said upon Stenehjem’s death.
But a day after Stenehjem died, Liz Brocker, a spokeswoman in his office, wrote to the state I.T. director and urged deletion of Stenehjem’s email files.
“We want to make sure no one has an opportunity to make an Open Record request for his emails, especially as he (Stenehjem) kept EVERYTHING," she wrote in an email.
Brocker wrote that Seibel had approved the action. Months later, in May, Seibel resigned, and his email file also was destroyed. Wrigley, who took office in February, after Stenehjem’s emails were deleted, said he did not approve the deletion of Seibel’s files.
Wrigley this week said “we have moved heaven and earth to try to resurrect those emails.”
He also believes there is no illegality in deleting the emails, saying he is backed up by others in the Attorney General’s Office, as well as other experts, including McDonald, who works on behalf of the media, and not the government.
“It would be a mistake for me – having the unanimous opinion in the office, Jack McDonald included – to bundle it up and make some big show of passing it on to another prosecutor’s office,” Wrigley said. “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to compound the situation with a legal mistake.”
McDonald said he does not believe more can be gained by further investigation.
“We know what happened,” he said. “There is nothing more to investigate, except to keep hanging out dirty laundry. The emails are deleted.”
But, Wrigley said, the act of deleting the emails – coupled with the awareness in open government it has prompted – could be useful to bring about change in state government.
“A moment like this can revolutionize thinking throughout government,” he said. “To bring open records and transparency to life takes a process by which documents are preserved, archived and maintained. It’s as simple as that – otherwise, you have openness to nothing.”
Wrigley, who served two stints as a U.S. attorney, said the federal government has tighter standards for public documents. He has been surprised that state government does not necessarily mirror those standards.
With that in mind, he said the AG’s office is moving forward on adopting better in-house open-government policies.
“We are going to have a really comprehensive policy here,” he said. “In the meantime, there is no deletion – I don’t care who leaves this office. We are not deleting any files until we get to a point where we have a shared understanding of document preservation in this office. We will be leaders on this – that’s all there is to it. There will be no more ‘let’s get rid of this file’ until we have a policy, and a level of comfort.”
McDonald supports Wrigley’s interest in tightening state policies regarding records. He believes North Dakota’s laws are among the best in the nation, but advancements in technology have created “loose ends” that should be addressed, he said.
“We have gone from (paper) records, to everything on laptops, and now phones, emails, TikTok, Instagram and everything else. I’m not sure the law adequately covers all of that,” McDonald said. “I wouldn’t be in favor of major changes. We have good, basic laws. But there are a few things around the edges that come up and this email (deletion) certainly exposed one of them.”