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NDSU turns over 1,950 pages of deleted emails

FARGO -- North Dakota State University on Wednesday turned over nearly 2,000 pages of emails deleted from President Dean Bresciani's account to the North Dakota Legislative Council.

Very few of the 1,950 pages of deleted emails were sent by Bresciani. In most cases, the emails contain information previously published by The Forum newspaper after open records requests.

Many of the emails are longer chains -- with more replies from co-workers -- or different versions of the same emails that the council received after its initial request in late April.

A team of Forum reporters pored through the emails Wednesday after obtaining them through an open records request.

The council requested on April 29 Bresciani's correspondence that mentioned then-University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, and received 900 pages of emails. University officials eventually determined that more than 45,000 emails had been deleted from Bresciani's account sometime in the two weeks leading up to the council's request.

Of those, NDSU found 1,950 pages of emails that should have been sent to the Legislative Council.

Among those deleted messages, the Forum found:

V An email NDSU Vice President for Finance and Administration Bruce Bollinger sent to Bresciani in late November, offering feedback on the president's draft of a campus update letter. Bollinger pointed out that Bresciani didn't reference Shirvani's "Pathways to Student Success" plan for North Dakota higher education.

"You don't want to inform the world that you are not recognizing the Chancellor's proposal," Bollinger wrote.

V Many of the emails Bresciani sent to others that expressed his disdain for Shirvani, his staff and officials from other North Dakota universities. The Forum published excerpts from some of those emails in an April 28 story chronicling some of the behind-the-scenes conversations Bresciani and other North Dakota university presidents had about Shirvani. The council received many of these emails -- as part of a different, smaller chain of emails -- in its initial request.

V Several hundred automatic updates from an online petition calling on Bresciani to unfreeze funding for sexual education programming.

Whether those emails were deleted inadvertently, on purpose or as a result of some systematic error is still unclear. NDSU has maintained from the outset that Bresciani didn't delete any emails or direct anyone to do so. They believe an automatic purging function, turned on for email accounts across the University System sometime in May, is to blame for the dumped emails.

The deleted emails are now at the heart of a probe by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem as to whether NDSU violated the state's open records law.

The state's open records law gives the public the right to inspect the correspondence -- including emails -- of all public officials, including Bresciani and the other university presidents.

If Stenehjem determines the emails were deleted to avoid public disclosure, he could refer the matter to a state's attorney for consideration of criminal charges, including a felony for destroying public records. There's no timetable for Stenehjem's opinion.