10 NDSU players plead guilty to petition fraudFARGO — A 15-paragraph statement by the university president, an apology by the athletic director and the suspension of the starting running back by the head coach culminated a day that started with 10 North Dakota State football players in a courtroom.
By: Jeff Kolpack and Mike Nowatzki, Forum Communications
FARGO — A 15-paragraph statement by the university president, an apology by the athletic director and the suspension of the starting running back by the head coach culminated a day that started with 10 North Dakota State football players in a courtroom.
NDSU President Dean Bresciani said Tuesday night that the 10 players who admitted to violating North Dakota election law in their first court appearance in Cass County District Court made a serious mistake. The result was a one-game suspension to running back Sam Ojuri, who will miss Saturday’s game against third-ranked Youngstown (Ohio) State. Bohl said it wasn’t because of the one incident but rather other factors involving a violation of team rules.
Bohl said the other players will be disciplined, but not in the form of a suspension.
“We have a consistent discipline process within our department,” Bohl said, then citing discussions with athletic director Gene Taylor. “As Gene and I went through each individual case, we determined Sam Ojuri will not play this week.”
Taylor apologized for his actions following NDSU’s 22-7 win over Colorado State on Sept. 8. Taylor, in an interview with The Forum’s Kevin Schnepf, was adamant that no discipline will result from the charges of petition fraud. He recanted those statements on Tuesday.
“I pride myself in handling any media situation with professionalism,” Taylor said, “and sticking to the issues in hand. After answering Kevin’s question, I allowed my personal bias rather than a professional approach as athletic director. I’ve always been able to keep my emotions in check, no matter what the situation is, but that particular night I didn’t.”
Bresciani said the case is closed from a university standpoint.
It is also closed from a judicial standpoint. The guilty pleas brought a quick end to a legal mess that has been a public distraction to a promising team, which is ranked No. 1 in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. State officials announced on Sept. 4 the discovery of forged signatures on petitions for two initiated measures that were ultimately rejected as a result.
The 10 players who pleaded guilty besides Ojuri are Lucas Albers, Aireal Boyd, Joshua Colville, Demitrius Gray, Brendin Pierre, Antonio Rodgers, Bryan Shepherd, Charles (C.J.) Smith and Marcus Williams.
Judge Douglas Herman sentenced the 10 to deferred imposition of sentence, 360 days of unsupervised probation, a $300 legislative fee, 50 hours of community service to be completed by April 15 and a $25 community service fee.
If they meet the terms and complete the probation without further offenses, the charge will be cleared from their public record.
“The election laws are important,” Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said afterward. “And I think what happened here was very unfortunate. Having said that, our recommendations were based on what the court has done in the past and our effort to try to keep a matter of uniformity to similar kinds of behavior.”
All 10 players faced one count of violating election law by signing a name other than that person’s own name to an election petition, a Class A misdemeanor.
Three former Bison players who face the same charge — Don Carter, Joshua Gatlin and Darren (D.J.) McNorton — had their first court appearances rescheduled to Thursday.
Two other people charged in the case also entered pleas. Jennifer Krahnpleaded guilty and received the same sentence as the 10 current players. William Brown pleaded not guilty and requested a public defender.
Assistant State’s Attorney Tracy Peters recommended that the three players with prior criminal records — Albers, Ojuri and Williams, all of whom had alcohol-related convictions within the past two years — receive suspended sentences, which would keep the convictions on their public records.
Defense attorney Bruce Quick, who represented the 10 current players, argued that all of the players were “entirely cooperative with law enforcement” and all should be entitled to the same deferred imposition of sentence.
“Having this on your record is a lot different than having the other offenses on your record, just because of the taint of fraud,” he said.
Peters accused Quick of minimizing the seriousness of the crime.
“I think the impact of what they’ve done is clear,” she said.
As Peters began to talk about the effects on North Dakota voters and those behind the measures, Herman interrupted.
“If you want to be a zealot for this cause, you don’t come into this courtroom with deferred impositions in hand,” he said.
Burdick said the state recommended deferred impositions for those with clean records “because that was the kind of sentences that had been handed down in the past, both here in Cass County and in other parts of the state, for these kind of offenses.”
Burdick said “disappointed” was too strong a word to describe how he felt about those with criminal histories not receiving a harsher penalty.
“I think the court is completely within its rights to decide not to do that and stick with this, but that’s not what we recommended,” he said.
Quick asked that the players be given 10 months to complete their community service, but Herman set the shorter timeline.
“I don’t want to treat them adversely trying to make some kind of special example of them,” he said, and then added that he also didn’t want to grant the players any special favors.
The charges were tied to petition drives involving two North Dakota initiated measures now barred from the November election. The separate ballot initiatives sought to legalize marijuana for medical use and to establish an outdoor heritage fund.
A number of the players were hired by an Iowa company, Terra Strategies, to collect signatures for the outdoors initiative. Quick said they were quoted a daily rate of up to $90 but were told they’d get paid only if they obtained 60 signatures per day.
Herman questioned the legality of such an instruction and said he had serious concerns about a quota system being used.
“I think that may have been pushed on these individuals,” he said.
Lee Ann Oliver, an election specialist with the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office, has said that it’s illegal to pay petition circulators per signature gathered, but it’s less clear whether that prohibition extends to a quota system.
Herman said the players were involved in a “reckless” enterprise, but he said they apparently weren’t aware of how seriously the adult public views election rules.
“I don’t think they were smart enough or grown up enough or sophisticated enough to understand” the process, he said.
The 10 players who pleaded guilty Tuesday are part of a Bison team that’s considered a strong contender for a second consecutive FCS title, but Burdick said their status as players wasn’t a factor.
“We took no consideration of what they do outside of the courthouse here other than the activity that we were charging them with,” he said. “It’s irrelevant to me whether they’re football players, baseball players or clerical workers in some office. It’s the behavior that we’re looking at.”
Quick, a prominent Fargo defense attorney, said the players paid for his legal services. He said he did not give them a discounted rate.
“They’re owning up to their own conduct,” he said.
As they left the courthouse together, the players did not speak to reporters.