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Port: The deleted emails saga has been a master class in how to lose the public's trust

The greatest cost of this scandal to our state isn't measured in dollars so much as lost trust in our public servants.

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Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, presents a bill to the House Finance and Taxation Committee on Jan. 6.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
We are part of The Trust Project.

MINOT, N.D. — How do citizens lose faith in their government?

This is how.

Former North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem passed away.

Weeks after his successor, Drew Wrigley, was appointed to the office, we learned that there was a massive budget overrun for a new office space project that wasn't reported to the Legislature.

Then, when I and others filed records requests to investigate that situation, we found out that the email accounts for Stenehjem, and his deputy Troy Seibel, were deleted by IT officials on no greater authority than the command of Stenehjem's long-time executive assistant Liz Brocker.

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State officials assured us that there was no way to recover the emails, but it wasn't until September, months after we learned about the deleted email accounts, that IT personnel got around to bringing in an outside consultant to verify that. They blamed the delay on a "miscommunication" with the Attorney General's Office . Specifically, they claimed they weren't aware that anyone wanted an outside review of the situation.

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Nobody in the state's IT department reads the newspaper, watches the evening news, or peruses social media? They didn't know that the public was interested in an outside review?

Give me a break.

We have that review now, and the consultants tell us they are certain the emails can't be recovered . Maybe they could have had someone tried within 30 days of deletion, but the first attempts at recovery didn't happen until months after Brocker's order to delete them was carried out.

And oh, by the way, as the email debacle has unfolded, we learned that one of the owners of the various businesses which refurbished the new office space for the AG's office, and is currently leasing that space to the state of North Dakota, and was overpaid by at least a quarter-million dollars , is state Rep. Jason Dockter. A Bismarck-area Republican who also served as the treasurer of Stenehjem's 2016 gubernatorial campaign.

Dockter told me, in an interview , that his businesses are reimbursing the state for the overpayment. He also insists that, while he and his business partners may have exercised some poor judgment, nothing that was done was unethical, let alone illegal, and that our real problem is an overzealous auditor.

He's referring to state Auditor Josh Gallion, who was one of the first people Wrigley notified when he first came across this problem. Dockter says he has a "trust issue" with Gallion's office.

Given this fiasco, I'd say the "trust issues" are between North Dakotans and their state government.

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Outside of Wrigley's prompt and diligent response to a situation that fell in his lap, there is not one part of this process that passes the smell test, from the deleted emails to Dockter's involvement.

We live in a time where Americans have lost faith in many of our society's institutions, the government chief among them. Situations like this one explain why.

The greatest cost of this scandal to our state isn't measured in dollars so much as lost trust in our public servants.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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