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North Dakota’s longest-serving state senator exchanged 72 texts with jailed child porn suspect

State Sen. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks told a reporter he no longer had the text messages. When asked what happened to the texts, Holmberg said, “They’re just gone.”

010819.n.fns.forecast John Hageman photo
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, addresses members of the North Dakota House and Senate appropriations committees on Jan. 7, 2019.
Forum News Service file photo
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GRAND FORKS — North Dakota’s longest-serving state senator exchanged 72 text messages with an inmate suspected of child porn and sex abuse crimes, jail records show.

A phone number used by Sen. Ray Holmberg, a powerful Grand Forks Republican, was among those 34-year-old Nicholas James Morgan-Derosier texted in flurries of communication on Aug. 23 and 24 when Morgan-Derosier was incarcerated last year at the Grand Forks County Jail.

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

Reached by phone, Holmberg said his text messages with Morgan-Derosier were related to “a variety of things,” including patio work Morgan-Derosier did for him.

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.

A Jan. 4 detention hearing for Morgan-Derosier in North Dakota’s federal court offered insight into the contents of Morgan-Derosier’s texts in jail.

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During the hearing, federal prosecutor Jennifer Puhl sought to show a pattern of exploitation by Morgan-Derosier. As one example, Puhl told U.S. District Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal that Morgan-Derosier had text exchanges on Aug. 23 with a “77-year-old man from Grand Forks” when Morgan-Derosier was jailed, according to the hearing transcript obtained by The Forum.

The 77-year-old man, who was not identified by prosecutors in the transcript, 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 said in the transcript. 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 said. “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.”

Holmberg would have been 77 years old at the time of the text exchanges. He is now 78.

When asked about the massage request, Holmberg told The Forum, "I don't know what you're talking about, OK?”

In March 2021, roughly five months before the text exchanges between Morgan-Derosier and Holmberg, the Grand Forks Herald wrote a story about 10 child porn charges filed against Morgan-Derosier in Grand Forks County District Court. In an initial interview, Holmberg told The Forum he read the story, but it’s unclear when.

In a second interview, Holmberg said he was unaware of Morgan-Derosier’s 10 child porn charges. The charges were later dismissed to make way for federal prosecution.

When asked if investigators talked to him about Morgan-Derosier, Holmberg said he didn’t want to talk about it.

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“That doesn’t mean one thing or another,” he said.

Interim North Dakota U.S. Attorney Nicholas Chase declined to identify the 77-year-old man mentioned in the hearing and would not say whether the man is being investigated for possible criminal charges. Chase said his office doesn’t identify a person in a case if they are not charged with a crime, unless there is a reason to do so.

The Grand Forks County Jail declined to share the contents of the text messages with The Forum because Morgan-Derosier is under criminal investigation. Chase also declined to show The Forum the messages and wouldn’t discuss their contents.

State law makes communications from and to state lawmakers confidential.

Holmberg told a reporter he no longer had the text messages. When asked what happened to the texts, Holmberg said, “They’re just gone.”

Text timeline

Morgan-Derosier has been in the Cass County Jail since Dec. 16 on federal charges of receiving and distributing child porn, possessing child porn, transporting minors with intent for those children to engage in sexual activity, and traveling with intent to engage in illicit sexual activity. The charges were filed Dec. 15.

Court documents alleged Morgan-Derosier had more than 6,500 images and videos depicting sexual abuse against children. He also is accused of taking two children in early 2020 from their Twin Cities-area home to his residence in Grand Forks, according to federal prosecutors. He did not get permission from the mother of the children, who were less than 10 years old at the time, and had plans to sexually abuse them, prosecutors alleged.

Investigators are looking into claims Morgan-Derosier victimized 20 or 21 children, according to the court transcript. Chase told The Forum the children identified as potential victims of Morgan-Derosier were allegedly abused in Minnesota, so North Dakota would not have jurisdiction.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota has not charged Morgan-Derosier with any crimes, nor does he face sex crime charges in any Minnesota county. The Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to say whether it was investigating the case.

The newspaper requested phone records that showed Nicholas Morgan-Derosier and Sen. Ray Holmberg texted each other 72 times while Morgan-Derosier was in jail.

Before facing federal prosecution, Morgan-Derosier was incarcerated at the Grand Forks County Jail between Aug. 17 and Aug. 24 in connection to the Grand Forks County District Court charges.

Through a public records request, The Forum obtained the jail’s log of text messages exchanged between Holmberg’s phone number and Morgan-Derosier. The log included the times and dates of the texts.

The jail’s text log showed Morgan-Derosier texted Holmberg’s number first at 3:23 p.m. Aug. 23, getting a response less than a minute later. The text log indicated 65 messages were exchanged over the next two hours, and the last one came from Holmberg’s number at 5:24 p.m.

A second exchange started at 6:14 p.m. Aug. 24, but only seven messages were exchanged that day, according to the text log. The first message in that exchange came from Holmberg’s number, and Morgan-Derosier sent the last message at 6:31 p.m. that day.

In total, an equal number of text messages were sent from Holmberg’s number and from Morgan-Derosier, according to jail records.

Morgan-Derosier was bailed out at 9:14 p.m. Aug. 24, a jail official said. His landlord, who is not Holmberg, paid the bond, Puhl said.

Holmberg told The Forum he corresponded with Morgan-Derosier because Morgan-Derosier was working on the legislator’s patio for a year and a half.

The two have known each other for two years, Holmberg said. Morgan-Derosier was over to Holmberg’s house for drinks “a few times, coffee and stuff,” the senator said.

“So yeah, not social-social,” he said when asked if their relationship was social or professional.

“We never went out to dinner at restaurants,” Holmberg said. “But I don't want to say much more.”

He said he didn’t know Morgan-Derosier was in jail when the text exchanges happened.

Sometime after the text exchanges with Morgan-Derosier in August, Holmberg changed his phone number to one with a Minnesota area code. A background check by The Forum showed the number used to text Morgan-Derosier matched Holmberg’s previous number. That number had a North Dakota area code and previously appeared on the senator’s public legislative website.

The North Dakota Legislative Council confirmed that a contact number listed on Holmberg’s legislator profile page was changed Dec. 23.

Who is Holmberg?

First elected to the North Dakota Senate in 1976, Holmberg is the nation’s longest-serving state senator. He’s become one of the most powerful and popular lawmakers in the Legislature and is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and procedural Rules Committee. He also serves on the interim Budget Section and chairs the Legislative Management Committee.

He has been called a champion of Grand Forks, his district and North Dakota. In 2021, Holmberg received the Henry Havig Award from the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. In the same year, he was named the Herald Person of the Year.

Holmberg received widespread praise from North Dakota state and federal leaders when he announced in March he would retire as a state senator this year.

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.”

Who is Morgan-Derosier?

Morgan-Derosier was the owner of the now defunct companies Team Lawn, which was a landscaping business, and Vaughn Construction. A Grand Forks judge ordered the companies in 2019 to stop operations after complaints they were taking money for work that wasn’t completed.

NICHOLAS MORGAN-DEROSIER.jpg
Nicholas James Morgan-Derosier.
Grand Forks County Jail photo

Despite the ban, Morgan-Derosier continued to operate his landscaping business under a different name, which prompted investigators to obtain a search warrant in September 2020 for evidence that he violated the judicial order, according to court documents.

During the Sept. 15, 2020, search, investigators allegedly found child porn files on a thumb drive at Morgan-Derosier’s Grand Forks home, court documents said. This launched a wider investigation that led to the federal charges against him.

Christopher Bellmore has been appointed as Morgan-Derosier’s public defender. When asked by The Forum for an interview with Morgan-Derosier, Bellmore’s office deferred questions to the federal public defender’s office in Sioux Falls, which oversees federal public defense in the Dakotas.

The Sioux Falls office did not return The Forum’s message.

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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