MINOT, N.D. — Here’s an uncomfortable truth revealed by the recent scandal over deleted email accounts in the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office: For the assurance of fair access to crucial public records, we rely almost entirely on the honesty and integrity of state officials.
I have filed thousands of open records requests in my nearly two decades of writing about public records, and almost all of the time our state officials turn over what I’m looking for, even in situations where what’s revealed is something less than flattering for them.
At least, I assume that’s what’s happened.
How would I know if someone decided to send some inconvenient text messages, or a salacious email, down the memory hole? When I talk to people about the open records process, I liken it to trying to find something in a dark room. You may have some sense of what you think you might find, but you don’t really know until you find it, and you only find it if the people in charge let you.
Absent the testimony of a whistleblower, I wouldn’t know if a state agency isn’t turning over responsive records, which is why those of us who work in the news media are making such a big deal about Liz Brocker, now a former executive assistant in the AG’s office, ordering, with pretty much zero oversight, the deletion of email accounts for former AG Wayne Stenehjem and his deputy Troy Seibel.