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Port: We have not yet plumbed the depths of this attorney general office space scandal

It's time for state officials to get serious about this. There are too many red flags, too many convenient connections between family, political allies, and business partners, for us to believe that this deal was above board.

dockter.jpg
Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, presents a bill to the House Finance and Taxation Committee on Jan. 6.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — I am not using the word "scandal" in the headline of this column casually. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that word, and its definition, and I think it applies to the debacle in Bismarck right now.

It started with a budget overrun for new office space, and deleted emails, and now we know a state lawmaker benefited financially from the Attorney General's Office leasing space in a building he would come to own, but this rabbit hole goes so much deeper.

On the emails front, our Jeremy Turley has a report today indicating that state ITD officials may not have been as rigorous in trying to retrieve the accounts for former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, or his deputy Troy Seibel, that were ordered deleted by Liz Brocker, Stenehjem's long-time assistant. ITD officials are only just now bringing in outside help to assist with recovery efforts .

But there's more, much of it coming from a scathing report issued by Auditor Josh Gallion's office this week. Gallion was among the first people contacted by current Attorney General Drew Wrigley when he became aware of irregularities, and it's hard to know where to begin with what his audit uncovered.

Shall we start with the financing? As I previously noted, state Rep. Jason Dockter lobbied state officials to lease a building his property management firm, Stealth Properties, was interested in purchasing. Providing the financing for that purchase was 1st International Bank, an institution owned by former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's family.

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Jed Fluhrer, a commercial loan officer at 1st International, is also a part-owner of Stealth Properties, per the audit report.

Stenehjem for Governor campaign
Data from the North Dakota Secretary of State's office showing state Rep. Jason Dockter as treasurer for former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's gubernatorial campaign.
Screenshot

Here's another connection: Dockter was close to Stenehjem, serving as treasurer for his 2016 gubernatorial campaign.

Shall we talk about this office space that was leased? It's 2,600 square feet smaller than the office space previously occupied, meaning North Dakota's taxpayers are paying more per square foot for this space. Per the auditor's report, department directors in the AG's office opposed moving into the space because they thought it was too small.

The taxpayers had to pay millions to refurbish this office space to make it work for the AG's office personnel, including a nearly $2 million cost overrun.

That sure seems like a bad deal for taxpayers, doesn't it? And a downgrade in the workspace for the AG's office employees? But it seems like Doctker and his business partners made out fine.

State Auditor Josh Gallion presents his Governor's Travel and Use of State Resources report to members of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. Bismarck Tribune photo
State Auditor Josh Gallion
Bismarck Tribune photo

Not only does Dockter's property management firm, Stealth Property, now own a building with a state government tenant, but the companies he and his partners own were also paid to do the refurbishing. In some instances, they were apparently paid hundreds of thousands of dollars without providing invoices, with two of the payments coming directly from 1st International Bank.

Frontier Contracting, co-owned by Dockter and C.J. Schorsch, received $289,000 in payments. Gallion's auditors couldn't find invoices for this. By the way, Scorsch is also the owner of Parkway Property Management, which is managing this office space for Sealth Properties, where he is another co-owner.

Northern Plains Plumbing, Heating, and Air, co-owned by a man named Mike Gietzen who is, in turn, another co-owner of Stealth Properties, received a $308,187 payment without invoice documentation that auditors could find.

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The business connections between these people are a spiderweb. A full listing of Dockter's interests is contained in the statement of interest disclosure he was legally obligated to file with the Secretary of State's Office as a candidate for re-election in District 7 (he's running unopposed):

Folks, it gets worse than just the cozy relationships.

Frontier Contracting doesn't have a contractor's license.

Frontier Contracting was paid for routine maintenance work that, per the state's lease, should have been covered by the landlord, Stealth Properties, and not the taxpayers.

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And the money that paid for the budget overruns that were the tip of his horrible iceberg? The Attorney General's Office pulled funds from funds earmarked from law enforcement. They pulled funds from the state lottery, which the office oversees, even though, per state law, excess lottery funds are supposed to go back into the general fund.

This brings us back to the issue of the emails.

Doesn't the deletion of Stenehjem and Seibel's accounts look all the more sinister now? Doesn't the foot-dragging in trying to recover those emails that Jeremy Turley's report illuminates look all the more unforgivable?

By the way, neither Brocker nor Seibel cooperated with state auditors who were looking into this matter.

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Are you surprised?

Alarm bells are ringing all around this sorry situation and, to date, the only people who seem to be responding to it with alacrity are Gallion, with his office's jaw-dropping report, and current Attorney General Wrigley, who brought in Gallion as soon as he became aware of it.

It's time for state officials to get serious about this. There are too many red flags, too many convenient connections between family, political allies, and business partners, for us to believe that this deal was above board.

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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