“What is going on in Bismarck?” That’s the question Senate minority leader Joan Heckaman is increasingly hearing from constituents.
KX News is digging deeper into the initial committee investigation that revealed the deletion of two decades of state emails containing critical records for the public.
On Thursday night we showed you the heated conversation between Senator Tracy Potter and Attorney General Drew Wrigley over the deleted state email accounts of former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and former Deputy AG Troy Seibel.
Before that conversation in Attorney General Drew Wrigley’s office, Senators Joan Heckaman and Tracy Potter held a joint press conference in Memorial Hall of the state capitol.
The senators announced that they are calling on the Office of the Attorney General and the Governor for two main reasons:
- For the AG’s office to hold an audit and investigation into the $1.8 million cost over-run on a building leased by the attorney general’s office under the late Wayne Stenehjem.
- An independent investigation into the deletion of late Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s email account, as well as that of former Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel.
The questioning by the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee of the Attorney General’s lease and over-run of the building in south Bismarck led to the revelation that former AG spokeswoman Liz Brocker deleted the state email accounts of Stenehjem and Seibel.
“Is the AG’s office currently doing an investigation into the leasing and overrun of the new building in South Bismarck,” asked Senator Joan Heckaman, a Democrat from New Rockford.
Heckaman says it is doubtful. If there was an active investigation going on, the AG’s office would not be commenting on the situation like they currently are.
Heckaman says there should be a full performance audit on the AG’s office by State Auditor Josh Gallion.
“There seems to even be a lack of authority to even lease, let alone pay for the improvements, let alone pay for improvements that the state doesn’t even own,” said Heckaman.
Documents presented to the Government Administration by Legislative Council indicate that Representative Jason Doctor is associated with the leased facility.
Legislators owning property leased by the state is a conflict of interest problem.
Rick Becker sits on the Government Administration Committee. He spearheaded a study that looked at both facility efficiency and creating a transparent process where lawmakers would avoid conflict of interest when it comes to the state leasing building.
“That’s a situation where we need transparency, sunshine as they say, and voters need to know that there is not a conflict of interest, there is not a perverse incentive to vote on expanding budgets if it is in fact going to line the pockets of those legislators voting on those budgets,” explained Becker.
The AG’s office had a significant over-run on the leased space in south Bismarck, raising questions about the propriety of the enhancements to the building.
“The benefits of the over-run will only enhance the value of the building of the owners, which is not the state,” explained Heckaman.
At the end of the day, this situation highlights that there is a major transparency issue in regard to the state leasing buildings owned by legislators.
Now, Senators Heckaman and Tracy Potter are asking the Attorney General’s office to seek out all emails between all parties relating to the lease and enhancement to the property.
Lawmakers from both parties are calling for an independent investigation of the Attorney General’s office in regard to the deleted emails.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner is among the growing amount of lawmakers calling for an investigation. In a statement to KX News, Wardner wrote:
“My stand on an independent investigation is that there needs to be one so that people know the facts. Even if there has been no illegal activity, people will believe there has been some type of cover-up of illegal business, if only an internal investigation is done. My concern is the integrity of our state government and how it affects the other agencies if we don’t get the facts. The people of the state deserve to know what and why it happened and our legislators need to know in order to do the business of the state and legislate with facts. With that said the Auditors Office is reviewing and looking at the situation in the AG’s Office and will report its findings to the Audit and Fiscal Review Committee in September. The Auditor’s plate is full at this time and as soon as resources are freed up there will be a full Performance Audit. Things are moving but not as fast as some would like.”
Representative Becker says that the Attorney General needs to show the public that he is actively investigating the lawfulness of the deleted emails.
“We need to know that due diligence was done to find out if someone committed a crime, it certainly sounds like it on its face, but we need to know, and if not, how when it seems apparent to anyone who reads the law, how is it attorney general when you’re saying a crime was not committed,” said Becker.
In a press release, Senator Tracy Potter says the former AG spokeswoman violated Century Code by deleting the state email accounts. See attached PDF below: