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Port: Let's not abuse the whistleblower in the email debacle at the Attorney General's Office

Attorney General Drew Wrigley is the hero of this story, not the villain.

Drew Wrigley
North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley, picutred here in 2011
File photo
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MINOT, N.D. — Here's an uncomfortable truth revealed by the recent scandal over deleted email accounts in the North Dakota Attorney General's Office: For the assurance of fair access to crucial public records, we rely almost entirely on the honesty and integrity of state officials.

I have filed thousands of open records requests in my nearly two decades of writing about public records, and almost all of the time our state officials turn over what I'm looking for, even in situations where what's revealed is something less than flattering for them.

At least, I assume that's what's happened.

Screen capture of an email sent by Liz Brocker, a former executive assistant to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who ordered his email account deleted shortly after his death.
Screen capture of an email sent by Liz Brocker, a former executive assistant to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who ordered his email account deleted shortly after his death so that "no one has an opportunity to make an Open Record request."
Screencapture

How would I know if someone decided to send some inconvenient text messages, or a salacious email, down the memory hole? When I talk to people about the open records process, I liken it to trying to find something in a dark room. You may have some sense of what you think you might find, but you don't really know until you find it, and you only find it if the people in charge let you.

Absent the testimony of a whistleblower, I wouldn't know if a state agency isn't turning over responsive records, which is why those of us who work in the news media are making such a big deal about Liz Brocker, now a former executive assistant in the AG's office, ordering, with pretty much zero oversight, the deletion of email accounts for former AG Wayne Stenehjem and his deputy Troy Seibel.

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It's why we want to see accountability for Brocker and anyone else found to be involved.

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It's not just that some emails have been lost. It's that the public's trust in public officials has been dented.

We should be cautious about abusing current Attorney General Drew Wrigley. He is resisting further investigation in this matter, having already concluded that no laws were broken, and he's wrong about that, as I argued in a column last week .

As a step toward restoring some of the public's lost trust, he should be sending this matter to law enforcement officials outside of his office for investigation and potential charges.

But let's not lose sight of Wrigley's role in this.

He's the whistleblower.

He's the reason we know about any of this.

He could have responded to the open records requests, filed by our Jeremy Turley for Stenehjem and Seibel's emails, by telling us there were no responsive records. Instead, he chose to tell us, in detail, why those records didn't exist.

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For his troubles, he got excoriated in an editorial from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead .

"If Wrigley fails to act," the paper argued, calling for an external investigation and other steps to address this situation, "it’s only a matter of time before another rogue official decides to toss out a file cabinet full of public records."

That's true.

Wayne Stenehjem. Forum file photo
Wayne Stenehjem. Forum file photo

But it's also true that some public officials are watching how Wrigley is treated by those of us in the news media for choosing to be honest about what happened, and perhaps deciding that, if they find themselves in a similar situation, they might be something less than forthcoming.

Wrigley's reticence to bring in outside investigators is worthy of criticism, but that criticism must be tempered by the reality of his willingness to shed light on what seems to be a very low opinion of public transparency shared by some staff hired by his predecessor Wayne Stenehjem.

The point I'm trying to make is that we shouldn't be abusing the whistleblower.

Wrigley is the hero of this story, not the villain. He's working in an office full of staff mostly hired by Stenehjem, and presumably still loyal to him. He is stuck handling a scandal, just weeks into the job, that doesn't reflect well on them or, frankly, Stenehjem.

Meanwhile, outside the internal politics of his office, the usual suspects are trying to make this about partisan politics, and not honest government.

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Yes, bringing this scandal to light is Wrigley's duty. It's his job. But it's also a tough job right now. Let's not forget it.

I realize that this is an unpopular point of view in these polarized times, where it seems as though everyone must fit into either a friend or foe category, but it is possible to be a little bit wrong while also being mostly right.

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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