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Western N.D. to get special prosecutor to combat drug trafficking

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office is advertising for a special prosecutor who will serve a dual role in federal court to combat drug trafficking that has followed the state’s oil boom.

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The new position – which still needs approval from state lawmakers – represents the first dedication of federal resources resulting from a decision in November by the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy to designate Williams County as a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

“We’re there long-term, so we’re hoping to be able to expand that,” said David Barton, director of Midwest HIDTA, which covers seven states including North Dakota and South Dakota.

Currently, Midwest HIDTA funds 17 special prosecutors who serve dual state and federal roles, Barton said.

In North Dakota, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem currently has one assistant attorney general , Mike Mahoney, who is also a special assistant U.S. attorney.

The new special prosecutor will work out of office space in Minot and Williston, prosecuting drug-related criminal cases and asset forfeiture cases under the HIDTA program in state and federal courts.

Tim Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said in an emailed statement that the new position will be “an important added resource in our fight against drug traffickers in the Bakken oil patch.

“Given the exploding federal caseload in western North Dakota, we will take all the help we can get,” he said.

As Forum News Service reported last week, the number of criminal defendants charged in federal court in western North Dakota jumped by 31 percent in 2013 and has nearly doubled since 2011, a trend Purdon said he expects to continue. He said a big reason for the increase is the number of multi-defendant drug conspiracy indictments in western North Dakota.

Placing the special prosecutor in Minot and Williston “will encourage the close cooperation between local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement that is critical to dismantling drug trafficking organizations,” he said.

Like the U.S. attorney’s office, local state’s attorneys also are stretched thin, Stenehjem said, calling the additional special prosecutor “a really good thing.”

The state Emergency Commission and the Legislature’s Budget Section must both approve the additional full-time position. Stenehjem said he doesn’t expect a lot of resistance, noting they have previously approved oil impact grant funding to enhance prosecution services in Ward and Williams counties.

“They’ve shown to be pretty sensitive and supportive of prosecution services, and I think they will be,” Stenehjem said.

Barton said Midwest HIDTA received $100,000 from Congress for the position in fiscal year 2013 and has submitted another grant request for FY2014.

“Our hope is that it will be every year,” he said.

The application deadline for the position is Feb. 14.

According to the White House, the Office of Drug Control Policy has 28 HIDTAs operating in 16 percent of the nation’s counties and covering about 60 percent of the U.S. population. In North Dakota, HIDTA counties are Burleigh, Cass, Grand Forks, Morton, Ramsey, Richland, Walsh, Ward and Williams.