AG dismisses calls for outside probe of deleted emails

July 22, 2022 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Republican North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley on Thursday dismissed bipartisan calls for an independent investigation into possible violations of the state’s open records laws by his office.

“We consider this matter closed,” Wrigley told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, North Dakota lawmakers are pledging a review and possible overhaul of the state’s open records laws after an assistant to the state’s longest-serving attorney general ordered his emails deleted a day after he died, erasing more than two decades of historic and legal documents.

Wrigley said he was disappointed that the emails were erased, and that Wayne Stenehjem himself would have wanted them preserved.

“Wayne would have seen the value” to the person who succeeded him, Wrigley said.

Bismarck GOP Rep. Glenn Bosch, who heads the Legislature’s Information Technology Committee, said the issue of open record retention will be placed on the panel’s agenda when it meets next in September.

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“I think everybody in the Legislature wants us to look at this and fix what needs to be fixed,” he said.

Wrigley, who was appointed to the post in February by Gov. Doug Burgum, said that an investigation by his office found no criminal wrongdoing by Liz Brocker, who handled the deletion of Stenhejem’s state email account.

Wrigley said attorneys in his office who investigated the issue are experts in the state’s open meetings and records laws, and came to the conclusion that no laws were broken. Forwarding his office’s investigation for an independent review would have done nothing more than create “political theater,” he said.

An open records request showed that Brocker, who has resigned, asked for Stenehjem’s account to be deleted in an email to an information technology employee on Jan. 29. She wrote that the deletion was approved by then-Deputy Attorney General Troy 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,” Brocker’s email said.

The revelation of the deleted emails was made public last week when Wrigley responded to open records requests about a $1.8 million cost overrun on the lease for the attorney general’s office when Stenehjem was in charge. Wrigley had to explain in his response why certain information was not available.

North Dakota law makes tampering with public records a felony if a public official “knowingly, without lawful authority, destroys, conceals, removes, or otherwise impairs the verity or availability of a government record.” The open records law doesn’t set requirements for retaining records. A separate records management law requires each agency to establish a retention policy.

Wrigley said he and his attorneys found no violations of his agency’s retention policy. But an AP review of the policy found, for example, that the attorney general’s office is required to retain emails from and to state legislators for three years after the current fiscal year.

Wrigley said he was aware of that provision but that it wasn’t practical to retain every email, due to excessive cost and and the lack of storage ability.

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Bosch, who heads the Legislature’s IT committee, said each state agency should probably abide by a consistent and clear policy.

“I don’t think it has to be over complicated,” he said. “Every agency must follow a policy and the same policy.”

The attorney general is tasked with investigating complaints about possible violations of state open records and meetings laws in state and local governments.

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Grand Forks Democratic Rep. Corey Mock, who sits on the Legislature’s IT committee, said it was ironic that the agency charged with enforcing open records laws, “purged public records without any oversight.”

Mock said the attorney general’s office now has likely has lost “credibility to render a fair judgment to a public entity” that may be accused of open meetings or records violations.

“I think they are on thin ice,” he said.

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The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Corey Mock’s first name, quote from Wrigley on preservation of emails.