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Port: Why are we criticizing Gov. Burgum for working with someone with a criminal history?

Should Burgum be criticized for promoting a major project that has a former prisoner attached to it? No. The opposite is true. He deserves praise for it.

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Gov. Doug Burgum, left, speaks with FX Solutions's Richard Tabish and Atlas Power's Kevin Washington at an event debuting plans for the Williston, North Dakota, data center on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
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MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this week North Dakota was treated to some happy news.

A Montana-based company called Atlas Power is investing almost $2 billion into the development of a data center in western North Dakota. There is hope this investment paves the way for more development in this category, which could be yet another emerging industry for North Dakota.

Our modern digital economy is driving a boom in demand for data centers.

Data centers use a lot of power.

Western North Dakota produces a lot of power.

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Also, our chilly weather is apparently a boon for data centers that need a lot of cooling.

It all seems like a lot of wins.

But here's where things get a little muddy. At least for this particular data center project.

Atlas Power selected a company called FX Solutions, also of Montana, to construct the data center. The president of FX Solutions is a man named Richard Tabish, who featured prominently in the news release from Gov. Doug Burgum's office, as well as at a news conference.

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Tabish, it turns out, has an ugly criminal history, which left-wing commentator Mike McFeely details at length in a column . Tabish's story is so sordid it became fodder for the true-crime industry that serves America's unquenchable thirst for felonious intrigue.

He was convicted of murder at one point, and sentenced to 20 years in prison, though that conviction was later overturned. Other convictions for things such as burglary, conspiracy, and extortion held up, and he served 10 years before getting probation.

Some left-wing critics are now dunking on Gov. Burgum for standing next to someone like Tabish at a news conference.

But are we sure Burgum did anything wrong?

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Let's begin by juxtaposing this supposed scandal with some news from Minnesota's Democratic Party, which just announced that they'll be allowing felons and people in America illegally to participate in their caucuses and hold leadership positions in their party.

Gov. Burgum aware that businessman bringing crypto-mining to North Dakota has a checkered background

I'm not so sure about illegal residents — call me old-fashioned, but I think America's democratic franchise ought to be reserved for people who take the trouble to become citizens — but I like the idea of letting felons participate.

How can we expect people who are released from prison to become productive members of society again if we continue to treat them like criminals? If we deny them their rights as citizens, if we hamstring their ability to be prosperous, we only increase the likelihood that they'll turn to crime again.

This brings us back to Mr. Tabish.

He was convicted of crimes. He served his time. He's now engaged in a lawful business and is apparently quite successful. One doesn't get tapped to construct billion-dollar projects without having some success.

"Yes, we were familiar with Rick’s background, including his parole in 2010," Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki told McFeely. "He has done business in North Dakota for over a decade, to our knowledge without incident, including with a number of companies in the oil and gas sector."

That's remarkable. How many people could spend a decade in prison and then emerge to find that kind of success?

If Burgum were some guards-and-bars, throw-the-book-at-em, law-and-order politician, we might be able to accuse him of some rank hypocrisy for giving Tabish a pass because he's attached to a lucrative deal for the state of North Dakota.

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But that's not Burgum. He's been a leader in the area of criminal justice reform. Knowing about Tabish's criminal history and choosing to champion a project he's involved in any way seems entirely in line with Burgum's larger approach to politics and public policy.

The easy thing would have been for Burgum to keep his distance from this project, despite the potential it represents for our state.

Burgum chose to do the harder thing.

Frankly, this seems in keeping with North Dakota's views on people with criminal histories. Our state has some one of the most liberal laws in the country when it comes to letting felons vote.

It's simple. Section 12.1-33-01 of the North Dakota Century Code says that you cannot vote while incarcerated. Once you're out, though, you can.

Section 12.1-33-02, which is titled "Rights retained by convicted person," actually enumerates the rights convicts have in our state: "Except as otherwise provided by law, a person convicted of a crime does not suffer civil death or corruption of blood or sustain loss of civil rights or forfeiture of estate or property, but retains all of his rights, political, personal, civil, and otherwise, including the right to hold public office or employment; to vote; to hold, receive, and transfer property; to enter into contracts; to sue and be sued; and to hold offices of private trust in accordance with law."

Tabish, like any other citizen, has the right to pursue prosperity in the state of North Dakota despite his past crimes. Not just as a moral matter, but as a matter of the law.

Should Burgum be criticized for promoting a major project that has a former prisoner attached to it?

No.

The opposite is true. He deserves praise for it.

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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