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Conclusion N.D. corrupt 'ridiculous'

BISMARCK -- Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says a USA Today report Thursday alleging North Dakota public officials are the most corrupt of all the states is "patently ridiculous."

"Name the state officials or legislators who have been convicted of a crime involving public corruption in the last 50 years," Stenehjem said. "I can't think of any."

The last one, in fact, was more than 54 years ago, when one of Stenehjem's long-ago predecessors, Attorney General Elmo Christianson, was convicted of taking money to look the other way while Minnesota men brought slot machines into the state.

He said USA Today's story is so sensational "because it's not true."

The newspaper's analysis consisted solely of obtaining the number of federal convictions for public corruption for each state from the U.S. Justice Department for a 10-year period. It divided the number into the state's population to get North Dakota's rate of 8.3 per 100,000 population.

Illinois, the state whose governor's arrest inspired the story, came out with a rate of 3.9 or 18th place.

Stenehjem said federal prosecution and conviction of five Twin Buttes school officials on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation a few years ago and the prosecution and conviction of more than a dozen people on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa's reservation several years ago gives USA Today nearly half of the 53 convictions it tallied for the state, noting that these involved local officials, not state officials.

"Incomplete stories like this one fail to provide any analysis of the differences among states, and give no context or comparison whatsoever," he said. "This article references convictions only, and only those pursued in federal courts."

He said he spoke with North Dakota's chief federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, on Thursday who agreed the USA Today report is flawed. They agreed that North Dakota's numbers may be skewed by officials' aggressive prosecution of even small time corruption crimes.

Stenehjem also noted that the Grand Forks Herald's Thursday editorial cited from a University of Alabama study finding North Dakota, South Dakota and Colorado tied for least corrupt states.

The USA Today report this week is the second in less than five years that skims federal statistics to produce pronounce North Dakota highly corrupt.

In January 2004, the Corporate Crime Reporter released its first "Public Corruption in the United States" and said North Dakota was the second most corrupt state, behind Mississippi.

At that time, Stenehjem told The Forum the report was "irresponsible."

"These groups that grade states should be graded themselves. This group deserves an F," he said.

Longtime political scientist and Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl told the Herald in 2004 that he could not comprehend the Corporate Crime Reporter's conclusion. "All I can think of is that their criteria is faulty," he said.

Omdahl also observed -- and this was nearly five years ago -- "The governor's always in trouble in Illinois. I remember when even the guy who chaired Illinois' crime investigative committee went to prison."