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June 17, 2024

North Dakota state rep found guilty of misdemeanor charge tied to budget votes and building

North Dakota state rep found guilty of misdemeanor charge tied to budget votes and building

BISMARCK, N.D. — A jury in North Dakota on Friday convicted a state lawmaker of a misdemeanor in connection with a state-leased building he has ownership ties to. A legislative leader said he disagrees with the verdict and plans to review the statute and rules involved.

Republican Rep. Jason Dockter, of Bismarck, was charged in December 2023 with speculating or wagering on official action. He pleaded not guilty. The charge has a maximum penalty of 360 days in jail and/or a $3,000 fine. Dockter declined to comment on the verdict but said he will consider an appeal. His sentencing has yet to be scheduled.

A criminal complaint alleged that, as a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives, Dockter voted “on legislative bills appropriating money to pay for property he had acquired a pecuniary interest in,” against the law and legislative rules. The charge arose from complaints to the state Ethics Commission.

Republican House Majority Leader Mike Lefor said the case is concerning because “legislators aren’t going to feel comfortable knowing what a conflict of interest is.”

“I’m thinking that we need to visit legislative rules, look at state statutes and have a thoughtful conversation with the Ethics Commission so that we can make absolutely sure that legislators are not looking over their shoulder worrying about does it rise to the level of a conflict of interest or not?” Lefor said.

He called it a “slippery slope” for scenarios of a legislator who is a teacher voting on an education bill or a farmer voting on agricultural issues.

Prosecutor Ladd Erickson declined to comment on the verdict.

Dockter’s charge is part of a nearly two-year-old controversy involving the building, leased by the late Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for consolidating divisions of his office, that under Stenehjem incurred a cost overrun of over $1 million that hasn’t been fully reconciled.

Stenehjem’s successor, Attorney General Drew Wrigley, disclosed the overrun and that Stenehjem’s state email account was deleted days after his death in January 2022 at the direction of his executive assistant, Liz Brocker, who later resigned. A prosecutor declined to bring charges for the deleted emails.

Dockter is a co-owner of companies that own and worked on the building. He was friends with Stenehjem, but has denied any wrongdoing in the lease arrangement. Dockter was first elected in 2012. He was reelected in 2022 without opposition.

Democratic House Minority Leader Zac Ista called on Dockter to resign after the verdict. Dockter said he has no immediate plans to do so. Lefor said he doesn’t expect the Republican-majority House to take any immediate steps against Dockter.

The Legislature is not in session, and isn’t scheduled to convene until January 2025, after a December organizational session.

The cost overrun and deleted emails shocked state lawmakers, who raised concerns about trust and transparency. Earlier this year, Wrigley’s office recovered thousands of Stenehjem’s emails through a cellphone backup and released them in response to records requests. Stenehjem’s phone data became part of an investigation into former state senator Ray Holmberg, who is accused of traveling to Europe with the intent of paying for sex with a minor. Holmberg’s trial is set for September.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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