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Plain Talk: Attorney General's Office identifies rogue employee who deleted emails

Attorney General Drew Wrigley talks about how the email account of his predecessor, and his predecessor's deputy, were deleted without the knowledge of himself or any attorney or supervisor in his office.

Drew Wrigley
North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley, pictured here during his time serving as U.S. Attorney for North Dakota under former President Donald Trump.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — Last week, in response to an open record request filed by myself and others for emails, Attorney General Drew Wrigley announced that his office wouldn't be able to satisfy those requests in full .

An employee, who was not a supervisor or attorney in his office and who had no authority to do so, ordered the deletion of former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's email account. Stenehjem died earlier this year. Wrigley, who had already announced a campaign for the office, was appointed his replacement by Gov. Doug Burgum.

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Subsequent to the deletion of Stenehjem's account, the employee also ordered the deletion of Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel's account. Seibel left the office earlier this year after Wrigley informed him that he would be bringing in his own personnel for that position.

The original records requests were part of investigations into controversy over a cost overrun for newly constructed office space for employees of the AG's office, but these deletions have become a controversy in their own right.

Wrigley addressed the matter on this episode of Plain Talk. He declined to name the employee during our interview, but indicated that afterward his office would be releasing the communication in which the account deletions were ordered, and that this would identify the employee.

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The emails, which were released a couple of hours after we recorded our interview, document not just efforts by Wrigley's office to retrieve what was deleted, but also that the order came from Liz Brocker, Stenehjem's long-time assistant.

In the Jan. 29, 2022, email, Brocker indicated that the approval for the deletion of Stenehjem's account came from then-Deputy AG Seibel. "We want to make sure no one has an opportunity to make an Open Record request for his emails, especially as he kept EVERYTHING," she wrote.

Wrigley's office has also provided a timeline of events around the deletion of the email accounts.

Wrigley declined to discuss what disciplinary actions his office would take with regard to this employee, saying they're an "internal personnel" matter. He added that he'd received at least one "plea" not to identify this person publicly, but said he had no legal authority to keep that information from the public.

There is "no way to ascertain" the number of emails that were deleted.

Wrigley also said that while he wasn't aware of any situation where records that needed to be retained for ongoing matters of litigation, "the timeline was very rapid" for the removal of the accounts.

Wrigley said that he assumes a "vast" number of the emails in those accounts were also sent to other state employees, and so are maintained as records in those accounts, but with the accounts now gone, and with the state's IT personnel assuring him there's no way to get them back, there's also no way to measure how much information is now lost.

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Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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