Lawmaker’s open records request to NDSU yields 100,000 pages of emails, could take two years

BISMARCK - An open records request targeting a North Dakota State University official produced about 100,000 pages of emails that could take more than two years to redact, an attorney said, as state lawmakers consider a bill that would strip them...

BISMARCK – An open records request targeting a North Dakota State University official produced about 100,000 pages of emails that could take more than two years to redact, an attorney said, as state lawmakers consider a bill that would strip them of their anonymity when making such requests for public records.

The request, filed March 18 by the North Dakota Legislative Council on behalf of an unidentified legislator, seeks all emails to and from Kelly Rusch, the vice president for research and creative activity at NDSU, from May 1 to March 15.

It also asks for “information on the budget she maintains, any discretionary expenditure accounts under her control, and all travel related reimbursed expenses in 2014,” as well as all complaints filed against her, according to a copy obtained by Forum News Service through an open records request filed Tuesday morning with the North Dakota University System.

Christopher Wilson, the system’s general counsel in Fargo, responded Friday that NDSU had pulled 30,373 emails estimated to be about 100,000 pages, and that it would take more than two years for his office to redact non-public information from the documents.

However, given that a bill passed by the House last month would eliminate the system’s internal attorney positions effective June 30 and place that function in the attorney general’s office, Wilson wrote, “you will have to ask the AG’s office for their anticipated redacting process.


“Perhaps they anticipate providing additional resources to the campuses to help with redacting. Perhaps not,” he stated in an exchange with the system’s chief of staff, Murray Sagsveen.

The email portion of the request was suspended Tuesday afternoon until the other portions of the request are fulfilled, according to Sagsveen and John Bjornson, code revisor for the Legislative Council.

Such large requests were the impetus for Senate Bill 2222, said Sen. Tim Flakoll, its prime sponsor. Lawmakers currently can make open records requests anonymously through Legislative Council, and the bill would make their identity public record.

“I think taxpayers are looking for legislative transparency in who’s spending those taxpayer dollars,” said Flakoll, R-Fargo.

Under his original bill, if the total cost of the request was estimated to exceed $5,000 in a biennium, the lawmaker could either pay the extra cost with nonpublic funds or ask legislative management to direct Legislative Council to obtain the records at no charge. But that language was stripped in the Senate before the chamber passed the bill 44-3 last month.

The amended bill has its first hearing before the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday morning.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, opposes the bill, which he believes was driven in part by an expansive request he made in December for records related to development of the Common Core state standards for K-12 students.

A cost estimate prepared by the Department of Public Instruction at Flakoll’s request  estimated that Kasper’s request would have required gathering 500,000 pages of documents and cost $437,411.


Kasper said he filed the voluminous request – not anonymously – because he felt DPI officials were stonewalling him on his requests for information and he wanted to get their attention. He said he had already withdrawn the request before Flakoll sought the cost estimate.

“To me it’s a witch hunt, it’s a personal vendetta, and I don’t think it’s good public policy,” he said of the bill.

Flakoll, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and has applied to be the university system’s next chancellor, said he’s “not out to get anybody,” and that there have been a number of large records requests from lawmakers over the years with no name attached.

“There’s nowhere else in law where one person could expend hundreds of thousands of dollars without some oversight,” he said.

Kasper said lawmakers sometimes file open records requests on behalf of their constituents, and attaching a lawmaker’s name could make it easier to figure out who’s behind the request.

“I think we have the responsibility to maintain the privacy of our constituents,” he said.

The bill is co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, Rep. Thomas Beadle, R-Fargo, and Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, chairman of the House Education Committee.


Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at .

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