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Heitkamp fires campaign staffer amid ad fallout; some women considering legal action

In this 2014 file photo, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp provides Chamber members a Congressional update as she wraps up her first year representing North Dakota in the United States Senate at the North Dakota State College of Science Skills and Technology Center in Fargo. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

FARGO — A person responsible for the name-gathering process of a newspaper campaign ad that misused women’s names as victims of sexual assault has been fired, Julia Krieger, the communications director for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, confirmed Wednesday, Oct. 17.

Krieger said that person will not be named.

The newspaper ad, which ran in several Forum Communications Co. newspapers and other newspapers statewide Sunday, identified 127 women as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or rape.

Since its release, several women have come forward stating that they never gave the Heitkamp campaign permission to use their names in the ad.

In a statement released Tuesday, Heitkamp apologized for the error.

“I deeply regret this mistake and we are in the process of issuing a retraction, personally apologizing to each of the people impacted by this and taking the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again,” Heitkamp said.

Kylie Oversen, former head of the Democratic Party in North Dakota and current candidate for state tax commissioner, told Forum News Service Wednesday that she is clear of any wrongdoing with regards to a campaign ad from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp that misused women’s names as victims of sexual assault.

Oversen, who was one of the 127 victims named in the newspaper ad, said that — while she was involved in the name-gathering process for the ad — she is not in any way involved with the Heitkamp campaign. Oversen left her position as chair of the Dem-NPL in June to focus on her campaign for state tax commissioner.

Though she didn’t mention exactly how many, Oversen said that she did provide the Heitkamp campaign with multiple sexual assault victims for the purpose of the ad.

“Most people I shared were people I knew personally,” Oversen said.

The victims were made aware prior and signed-off on being included in the newspaper ad, Oversen said, adding that none of the women who have come forward in frustration since its release were women whose names were provided by Oversen.

On Wednesday, Oversen echoed comments from Heitkamp, calling the error a “serious mistake.”

“It was obviously a serious mistake and this isn’t a political thing … it is deeply personal to those impacted,” said Oversen. “My hope as someone who signed this letter is we don’t let the mistake override the intent of the letter.”

The campaign blunder came three weeks before Election Day, when North Dakota voters will decide whether to give her a second term over Republican challenger Rep. Kevin Cramer.

“There is no excuse or apology in the world that can undo what she has done to these victims,” Cramer said in an interview Tuesday.

Jake Wilkins, communications director for the North Dakota Republican Party, responded to the fallout in an email Wednesday.

“After receiving fierce backlash for outing sexual assault victims without their consent in a political attack ad, Heidi Heitkamp promised full transparency and accountability,” Wilkins wrote. “Many of these women spent days reassuring loved ones they were okay, and others fear their abusers may be able to identify them.

Given what Heitkamp’s indefensible actions have done to these victims, North Dakotans deserve to know what happened. Firing one unnamed staffer with no explanation is insufficient and fails to answer why Heitkamp was trying to weaponize sexual assault in the first place.”

On Tuesday, Megan Stoltz, who was one of the women named in the ad that didn’t give the campaign permission to do so, said in a Facebook post that she, along with other women in her situation, are coming together to pursue legal action against the Heitkamp campaign.

“Our privacy was violated on this day, and we deserve closure,” Stoltz’ Facebook post reads. “In order to receive the closure we need, we are searching for a lawyer who will take our case. We need our own voice. Together, the women listed on Heitkamp’s advertisement are searching for competent legal refuge.”

In the ad, Stoltz was listed twice, once by her married name and once by her maiden name.

In an interview with Forum Communications columnist Rob Port late Tuesday, Stoltz said they have 22 women currently in the group pursuing legal action.

“We are looking for a lawyer,” Stoltz told Port. “We just need to find one who will actually take the case. We’ve called around, but most lawyers aren’t interested in politics.”

After an initial matchup between the two candidates was canceled, Heitkamp and Cramer will meet for their first highly anticipated debate at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18.

The debate will be streamed live on all Forum Communications websites.

Ross Torgerson

Digital Reporter for Forum Communications. Native of Moorhead, Minn. Have a question or story idea? Email me at rtorgerson@forumcomm.com. Follow me on Twitter @RossTorgerson