Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published November 08 2012
For second time in 2 weeks, petition calls for grand juryWILLISTON, N.D. – A little-used provision of state law allowing citizens to petition for a grand jury investigation has been utilized for the second time in two weeks, with the man behind one petition drive saying there could be more to come.
A petition filed in Williams County District Court this week calls for a grand jury investigation of two public officials for comments they made opposing a measure to abolish property taxes in North Dakota.
The petition, signed by more than 950 residents, alleges that Williams County Auditor Beth Innis and state Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, violated the state’s “corrupt practices act” by presenting “false and misleading information” about the initiated measure known as Measure 2 in the June primary.
The petition uses the same North Dakota statute that Dunn County residents used last week to seek a grand jury investigation of Gov. Jack Dalrymple for campaign contributions he received from the oil industry.
Paul Sorum, the independent candidate for governor who asked an attorney to draft the Dunn County petition, said he is not involved with the Williams County petition.
However, Sorum said a template for citizen-initiated grand jury efforts has been shared with several different groups and he knows of at least three other petition efforts in the state at various stages.
“It seems to be a growing cottage industry,” Sorum said. “The more people learn about it, the more they want the injustices that have been inflicted on them remedied.”
Petition organizers needed to collect enough signatures to equal 10 percent of the number of people who voted in that county in the most recent general election. In this case, they needed at least 936 signatures.
The Williams County petition is similar to a lawsuit filed in February by the Empower the Taxpayer group against Tax Commissioner Cory Fong and other public officials. The lawsuit involved the corrupt practices act, which makes it a crime to spread false campaign information and use public resources for campaign work.
The district court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the law could only be enforced by prosecutors. The decision was upheld by the North Dakota Supreme Court. Voters rejected the property tax measure in June.
Innis, who also was named in that lawsuit, said the allegations in the petition stem from comments she made to a newspaper reporter in May 2010 after she was asked her opinion on abolishing property taxes.
“I gave my opinion. And by the First Amendment, I have the right to give my opinion,” Innis said. “I’ve never used any county monies or county funds on any of this stuff. I haven’t broken any laws. I haven’t done anything but just do my job.”
The allegations against Andrist stem from two columns he wrote that were published in the Williston Herald in May. Andrist, a newspaper columnist and retired publisher, said he had not seen the petition, but he anticipated it will be quickly dismissed.
“I don’t think I forgo my right to have an opinion because I happen to be in the Legislature,” Andrist said. “And I wasn’t using legislative resources to make that comment. I can’t imagine what grounds they think they have on it. Apparently they’re just sore losers.”
Williams County residents and Measure 2 supporters Charles Cartier and Palmer Reising signed their names to the petition as verifying petitioners, which means they swear under oath that the petition is factually accurate. A third person signed as a verifying petitioner, but the name is illegible.
“Let this be a very clear message to (elected officials) that they are being watched by the people that employ them,” Reising said Thursday.
Cartier could not be reached for comment.
David Thompson, the Grand Forks attorney who drafted the Dunn County petition, said he is not involved in other petition efforts.
The case is assigned to Northwest Judicial District Judge David Nelson.
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Dalrymple is a Forum Communications Co. reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 580-6890.