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Building Cost Overrun Questions Still Loom for Top North Dakota Officials

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota state officials are still grappling with the aftermath of a more than $1 million cost overrun on a building leased by the late attorney general, a more than year-old controversy that could reach a prosecutor’s desk for review for potential charges.

The issues involve a state lawmaker who was in a position to benefit from the lease and the deletion of the late attorney general’s official email account days after his death last year.

The overrun shocked lawmakers, who raised concerns about trust and how the building project was handled. The project was for consolidating divisions of the attorney general’s office in one location in Bismarck.

The Legislature’s audit panel last year sought an outside investigation into the overrun incurred under late Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who died in January 2022 at age 68 from cardiac arrest. Current Attorney General Drew Wrigley tapped Montana’s Division of Criminal Investigation for the probe.

An investigator returned a lengthy report last month, nearly a year after the panel sought further investigation following a critical report by the state auditor. The Montana investigator wrote that any North Dakota legal decisions are outside his scope.

Republican state Rep. Emily O’Brien, who chairs the panel, said she plans to schedule a meeting on the report before Thanksgiving. The committee is expected to decide whether to forward the Montana report to an outside prosecutor for evaluation for potential charges, she said.

O’Brien told The Associated Press the report is “incomplete and confusing,” that some details conflict and its timeline is difficult to follow for people unfamiliar with the issues.

The Montana report indicates that the initially estimated $1.7 million overrun resulted from change orders and pandemic-related issues, according to emails and interviews the investigator cited. The overrun was covered in 2021 by various attorney general’s office funds and by rolling $400,000 into future lease payments.

Wrigley declined to comment on the report. His office, after reviewing invoices, has recouped about $625,000 from the overrun, including the $400,000 rescinded from future lease payments, said Wrigley, who made clear the full amount isn’t final.

Gov. Doug Burgum appointed Wrigley in February 2022 to fill out the remainder of Stenehjem’s term. Wrigley in June 2022 disclosed the cost overrun to state lawmakers in a public meeting. State Auditor Josh Gallion’s office subsequently probed the issue, presenting an investigative report in September 2022, when the audit panel sought more investigation.

Gallion’s report detailed Republican state Rep. Jason Dockter’s status as a co-owner of the companies that own the building and that worked on the building project. Dockter was a past campaign treasurer to Stenehjem, as well as a friend. He said his relationship with Stenehjem was not a factor in obtaining the lease.

He declined to comment on the Montana report. Dockter said the state’s small population means many people, including lawmakers, have crisscrossing relationships.

“How does anyone do anything around here without really knowing someone?” Dockter said.

His attorney, Lloyd Suhr, told the AP, “We’re not going to make any comments until the process has played itself out, whatever direction it ends up going.”

Dockter’s business partner C.J. Schorsch, who managed the project’s construction, did not immediately respond to an email for comment on the report and the recouped costs.

Building owner Stealth Properties LLC last year gave a nearly $225,000 check to the attorney general’s office for overpayment after reconciliation, and it removed the $400,000 from the lease rate, according to the Montana report. Stealth’s attorney did not immediately return a phone message for comment.

Media records requests in July 2022 uncovered the deletions of Stenehjem’s state email account and that of his chief deputy, Troy Seibel, done at the direction of Stenehjem’s executive assistant, Liz Brocker, who resigned just after the deletions came to light.

“We want to make sure no one has an opportunity to make an Open Record request for his emails, especially as he kept EVERYTHING. This was approved by Troy,” Brocker said in her email directing Stenehjem’s account be deleted days after his death.

A woman who answered the phone at the Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s Office, where Brocker now works, said Brocker does not take press calls. Brocker did not respond to a Facebook message or a phone message at a number believed to be hers. State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer declined to comment.

Wrigley replaced Seibel, who left his job in March 2022. Seibel did not respond to a phone message. An attorney who has previously represented him did not immediately respond to a phone message.

Wrigley, a Republican, won election to a full term as attorney general last year. Dockter won reelection, unopposed.

North Dakota’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed laws earlier this year to increase transparency of who owns state-leased property and to set requirements for retaining state government emails.

The state Office of Management and Budget will be hiring a property administrator and a statewide contract manager in the coming months, and it will be drafting administrative rules concerning leasing, spokeswoman Jen Raab told the AP.

Source : KFYR