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Farm Bureau says it’s ‘lost confidence’ in ag commissioner, backs challenger

FNS Photo by Darren Gibbins With her husband Hal at her side, Judy Estenson announces her intentions to run for North Dakota commissioner of agriculture during a press conference at the Ramada Plaza Suites on Tuesday in Bismarck.

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Farm Bureau is supporting a challenger for the Republican endorsement for state agriculture commissioner, saying Tuesday it has lost confidence in incumbent Commissioner Doug Goehring — one day after Goehring emailed supporters defending his record and explaining a “politically incorrect” statement he made to his staff.

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Judy Estenson announced her candidacy at press conferences in Bismarck and Fargo, and a Farm Bureau official was on hand to distribute a statement explaining why it is supporting her over Goehring, a Farm Bureau member and former vice president of the organization.

Estenson will run as a Republican, setting up an intraparty challenge in the 2014 election as well as Goehring’s fight with an organization that backed his campaign in 2010.

Goehring said in an interview Tuesday that while people have a right to challenge him for the endorsement, “it’s unfortunate that it’s being done … with innuendo and misrepresentation of the facts, untruths and character assassination.”

“It does hurt that there’s a faction in Farm Bureau that I thought were my friends that did this,” he said.

Public records show North Dakota Farm Bureau President Doyle Johannes requested state files involving sexual harassment claims and hostile workplace environment claims against Goehring.

Public records of the investigation show Goehring reportedly introduced one new female employee as a “babe in the woods” and referred to a group of women — some of them employees — as a “harem.” Both incidents happened in the summer of 2012.

In a letter emailed to supporters Monday, Goehring explained in his letter that he “spoke and acted in a politically incorrect manner for today’s modern office” but meant no ill will.

Laurie Sterioti Hammeren, director of the state’s Human Resource Management Services, confirmed Tuesday that her office investigated the matter and took no action. She said she suggested some follow-up training, which he ultimately requested.

Sterioti Hammeren forwarded her report to Risk Management and her boss, state Office of Management and Budget Director Pam Sharp, to share with Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and the governor’s chief of staff.

Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the governor’s office followed standard procedure and immediately notified Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office of the complaint.

Stenehjem met with Goehring on Sept. 12, 2012, pressing home the seriousness of the situation.

Goehring said Tuesday he apologized to employees and that those issues have been addressed through sensitivity training.

“I have made formal apologies to the staff and now hold myself to a higher standard,” Goehring stated in his letter.

Goehring’s letter to supporters tried to head off Farm Bureau’s attacks, including a claim that he has “betrayed the public trust in his management and personal choices.”

‘Personal failings’ During campaign kickoff events in Fargo and Bismarck Tuesday, Estenson cast herself as a fresh face to government with an experienced hand in North Dakota agriculture.

Estenson lives in Warwick, where she and her husband farm and ranch and where the pair raised five children, one of whom she said works for the Farm Bureau. Estenson has also worked as a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital in Devils Lake for 30-plus years.

“I’m tired of the government growing in size and regulatory authority,” she said in Fargo

Estenson said she holds some different policy views from Goehring, most notably on animal cruelty legislation passed by last year’s Legislature.

“I think my policy will always be to look seriously at how we can protect the ag business and keep government at bay if it’s in the best interest for the farmer,” she said.

Farm Bureau Executive Director Jeffrey Missling said the group asked her to run against Goehring, as did neighbors and friends.

Goehring’s “personal failings,” as Missling called the complaints against the commissioner, were just the latest example that he said highlights the need for a new agricultural commissioner.

“There have been a plethora of issues that have come forward where our members have felt they would be better served by another candidate,” he said.

The Farm Bureau accused Goehring of refusing to confront the Humane Society, which funded a failed initiated animal abuse measure in 2012. Missling said Goehring should have taken more of a “hard line” against the Humane Society, he said.

Goehring said he was prohibited by law from campaigning for or against the measure.

In his email, Goehring also defended his position on the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s “extraordinary places” review that could allow for more public and technical input on oil and gas drilling on some public and private lands.

Goehring said he doesn’t want to see public influence or comment on private lands because it could set a precedent for land use.

The Farm Bureau statement said Goehring had made “questionable decisions to erode the personal property rights of our citizens.”

“I have always been about protecting private property rights,” Goehring said. “I think to distort that truth is wrong.”

Goehring said he had received an “overwhelming” amount of support Tuesday through emails, text messages and phone calls from Farm Bureau members who don’t agree with leadership’s actions.

Chad Oban, executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party, said even before Tuesday’s developments, the party felt confident in its chances of taking back the agriculture commissioner’s office.

Given Goehring’s history with the North Dakota Farm Bureau, “To lose their support really makes you wonder, you know, where’s his support at within the party?” Oban said.

Estenson said she will seek the party’s endorsement, after which she will decide whether or not to run in a primary.

Details of investigation State personnel records detail incidents that generated the complaints against Goehring:

A division director within the Department of Agriculture met with a human resources officer on Aug. 27, 2012, to discuss a reclassification request, during which she shared “several incidents of alleged inappropriate behavior” by Goehring.

The director reported that Goehring introduced her as a “babe in the woods” during a meeting that summer attended by state Game and Fish Department and Agriculture Department managers.

Goehring said Tuesday that the director had never worked in a regulatory environment before, and he used the term to mean “just not having a lot of background knowledge or understanding of our roles and responsibility.” He said he didn’t intend for it to carry a sexual connotation.

In a separate incident on June 21, 2012, during travel for an out-of-state meeting or conference, the director reported that she, Goehring and two employees she supervised were sitting at a Minneapolis airport restaurant for lunch, and a friend of hers joined them.

Goehring decided not to order anything, and when the server suggested he order something, he referred to the women as “his harem” and said he “could just nibble off their plates and we’re out of state,” the director reported, according to summaries of her interviews on Aug. 27 and a follow-up interview two days later with Sterioti Hammeren.

The director “said she was appalled and sick,” according to a summary of the latter interview.

Goehring said Tuesday that the server “was relentless” in asking him if he wanted to order anything.

“And about the fourth time, I just said, ‘If I want something, I’ll just ask somebody for something, I’ll have something from them.’ And she kind of looked at me in disgust, and I said, ‘Well, they’re a harem.’ And I didn’t mean anything by it. I apologized,” he said.

At that same conference, Goehring was complaining about his back and suggested that a female employee supervised by the director walk on his back. The director told Goehring the employee wasn’t going to do that, but later learned that the employee did walk on Goehring’s back in his hotel room.

Goehring acknowledged Tuesday that he asked the employee to crack his back because he had severe headaches and back pain. He said the hallway floor was dirty so he opened the door to his hotel room and lay down in the entryway while the employee walked on his back. A male employee also was present, he noted.

The director reported that she talked to the deputy agriculture commissioner at the time and said she was going to talk to Goehring about them. She said the deputy commissioner told her that Goehring might dismiss her since she was still on probationary status, so he would talk to him.

The director said “she thinks the Commissioner is very good at his job, for the State and for agriculture,” Sterioti Hammeren wrote in her summary. “(The director) said she does not think he is trying to sexually harass anyone, and that he is a good person. (The director) said that she does not think the Commissioner knows that his behavior is inappropriate.”

Still, the director, who no longer works for the Department of Agriculture, reported that she couldn’t trust her female employees to be with Goehring, which is why she moved the employee who reportedly walked on Goehring’s back to a different floor of the Capitol.

The female employee, who still works for the department, told Sterioti Hammeren that “she felt really awkward, caught off guard, and realized she shouldn’t have walked on his back, and that it just was not appropriate,” according to an interview summary. The employee said she thought Goehring “doesn’t always handle himself appropriately with females, and he likes to joke around.”