North Dakota bills would out lawmaker-landlords, tighten saving of government emails
The death of former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was followed by the mass deletion of emails and the revelation of a budget overrun tied to a building leased from a state lawmaker.
BISMARCK — Transparency issues brought to light in the wake of late Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s death are the subject of bills that would disclose the owners of state-leased property and extend requirements for retaining government emails.
The House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday held a hearing on House Bill 1288, brought by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo. The proposal would require state leases and rental agreements to list owners with an interest of 5% or more in the leased property.
Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, is backing House Bill 1528, which would require state agencies to develop policies for reviewing and disposing of state data.
The legislation, which has attracted 10 Republican co-sponsors, also would require agencies to keep emails and accounts for 90 days after deletion for review by a records administrator. Mock noted that he plans to propose an overhaul of the bill during a hearing next week.
Stenehjem unexpectedly died in January 2022 at age 68 due to cardiac arrest.
His appointed successor, Drew Wrigley, made public in June a $1.8 million building cost overrun incurred under Stenehjem.
While responding to open records requests about the overrun, Wrigley found that Stenehjem’s spokeswoman, Liz Brocker, had directed her boss’s government email account be deleted days after his death.
Brocker, who has since resigned, also directed the deletion of former Chief Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel’s email account after he resigned in March.
An investigative report prepared for lawmakers by State Auditor Josh Gallion last fall noted Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, as a co-owner of the attorney general’s leased building at 1720 Burlington Drive in south Bismarck. Dockter was Stenehjem's campaign treasurer in 2016 and 2018. The lawmaker has said he and Stenehejm were friends, "but it didn't have anything to do with" the building.
Roers Jones, an attorney, said her bill seeks to increase transparency without creating prohibitions or difficulties for the state in leasing property.
“We don’t want to limit the pool of properties that the state can consider, because then they may not be getting the best terms,” Roers Jones said. “We just want to make sure that the public understands or has the ability to see who the state’s doing business with.”
She said the bill “is not specifically directed at one episode or issue.”
“I think we’ve seen these questions about legislators leasing property to the state come up over the course of years,” Roers Jones said.
Information of property owners could be made available through the state facilities management director, who negotiates state leases, she told the House panel on Thursday.
Roers Jones was the only person to testify on the bill. The House panel did not take immediate action on her bill.
The Legislature’s interim Government Administration Committee last year considered but did not advance bill drafts related to restrictions or disclosure of legislators' holdings in state-leased property.
The interim panel also reviewed a list of state agency space needs and leases, including lessors, though some corporations didn’t provide or refused to provide names of their owners.
That panel carried out a study that reviewed state-leased property and whether any restrictions or prohibitions should be imposed related to state officials and lawmakers who are lessors to the state government. The study, approved by the 2021 Legislature, unfolded before Dockter’s ownership in the attorney general’s building was made public.
Dockter said Roers Jones’ bill should extend to 5% owners “of any company that does any business with the state,” including contractors.
“Why just pick one? If the whole idea behind the bill is to disclose and be transparent, then we should be transparent with everything,” he said.
He wouldn’t state his stance on the bill, saying he hadn’t seen its testimony.
Dockter declined to comment on whether he has heard from the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation or the North Dakota Ethics Commission in regard to the building cost overrun and ethics complaints filed against him in relation to his role in the building situation, respectively.
Wrigley last fall tasked Montana investigators with further probing of the overrun, at the urging of an audit panel of North Dakota lawmakers. Dockter has maintained there was no wrongdoing in the building lease or overrun.
House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, said it’s “very fair” to disclose “which legislators own buildings or are partners in buildings that are leased to state agencies.”
“Let’s be transparent. Let’s be open,” he said.
Mock said the elimination of Stenehjem’s email account was “a tragedy” that his bill aims to prevent in the future.
Brocker’s swift move to have her boss’s emails wiped after his death revealed “a lack of checks and balances,” Mock said.
“That situation shed a lot of light into what is possible and what happens when we don’t have a process in place to preserve literally decades of information and artifacts,” he said.
Information technology officials and a private tech consultant have been unable to recover the deleted email accounts.
Mock said he plans to propose changes to the bill that would scrap the language it currently contains but advance the mission of preserving electronic records.
The Democratic lawmaker’s suggested amendment would require agencies to develop a policy for reviewing emails, accounts and other state data after a “triggering event,” such as the death or firing of an employee.
The amendment also would establish a one-year recoverability period for any deleted data stored within the state’s email system. Mock said further tweaks could be made to the plan.
In current practice, agencies have their own policies for reviewing and disposing of records, but they must maintain emails that are subject to open records requests or legal holds.
Lefor said the state government should have a policy to hold emails “indefinitely” and “not to delete them.”
Wrigley has said he would institute a policy to retain indefinitely the emails sent and received by the attorney general, deputy attorney general and office division directors, though it’s unclear whether such a rule has been established.
Wrigley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jeremy Turley is a reporter for Forum News Service. Jack Dura is a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune.