A recent news article credulously reported the claims of a Bismarck attorney who is accusing the Department of Mineral Resources of deleting public records.
That’s a serious accusation. Destroying or otherwise inhibiting the public’s access to public records is a crime, one possibly as serious as a felony depending on the circumstances. But as I wrote in my print column yesterday, these accusations seem like a lot of hot air:
DMR spokeswoman Alison Ritter acknowledged that emails had been deleted, but only after the pertinent information was filed.
“The Department stands by our statement that even though emails were deleted in accordance with state record retention policies it does not mean the information contained within them was deleted permanently,” she told me. “Necessary information within the email gets transferred into an appropriate database.”
She cited the DMR’s well site database as an example. Each well in North Dakota has its own unique file. The information DMR officials collect about that well — things like complaints or photographs or reports — gets put in that file. A digital version of the file is available online.
Braaten, whose sensational accusations have been bolstered by unfortunately credulous reporting, would have us believe that the DMR is destroying information because they’ve deleted emails. Ritter says that information is maintained, just not in emails.
SAB readers will remember that these accusations began with a joint press conference held last year by Democratic candidate Marvin Nelson and Republican candidate Paul Sorum, each of whom was running for governor at the time. I wrote, back then, that the accusations had the stink of politics to them.
Turns out I was right. In an email to Governor Doug Burgum’s office earlier this month (see below) Sorum literally described the press conference as “an attempt to undermine Wayne Stenehjem’s Primary campaign.”
He really just came right out and said it. You can’t make this stuff up.
The attorney now launching accusations about illegal public records tampering, Derrick Braaten of Bismarck, seems to have his own political motivations.
He is best known in the state for being an activist lawyer fighting oil and coal development. His law firm was the one which filed an election year lawsuit against Public Service Commissioners Brian Kalk and Kevin Cramer (who was running for the U.S. House that year) claiming that legal and disclosed campaign contributions they’d taken coal industry interests were illegal.
The lawsuit was tossed out of court. After election day, naturally, and after its political usefulness had waned. But Democrats used the presence of the lawsuit heavily in their political messaging against both Cramer and Kalk.
Oh, and Braaten’s law firm is known as Baumstark Braaten Law Partners. According to their website it was formerly known as Sarah Vogel Law Partners.
That would be the Sarah Vogel who was the Democrats’ candidate for governor for a short time in the 2016 cycle.
I’m something of a zealot for government transparency. I file a lot of open records requests, and I’ve won a lot of dispute with government entities over access to records. If the DMR really was deleting information to keep it out of the hands of the public, I’d be in the front row of the pitchfork-and-torches mob.
But it’s not at all clear that the DMR did any such thing. It’s much more clear that Braaten, Nelson, and Sorum are motivated by political considerations.