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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published February 20 2013

North Dakota Legislature: House OKs bill to raise bar for grand jury probes

BISMARCK – A bill approved 61-33 Wednesday by the House updates North Dakota’s law regarding grand juries and increases the number of petition signatures required for citizen-initiated grand jury investigations.

House Bill 1451 says citizens can convene a grand jury with signatures from 40 percent of the votes cast in that county for governor during the previous general election, but no more than 5,000 signatures. Current law requires signatures from 10 percent.

Rep. Roger Brabrandt, R-Minot, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said only requiring 10 percent “could allow the grand jury to be abused and subject innocent people to criminal charges.”

The bill also updates archaic language related to grand juries that makes the process useless in North Dakota, Brabrandt said.

The floor testimony did not reference the petition filed in Dunn County that seeks a grand jury investigation of Gov. Jack Dalrymple related to campaign contributions he received from oil companies. The latest petition filed this month after a first attempt was dismissed required 202 signatures.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, spoke in opposition to the bill and said most processes in state law require less than 40 percent of signatures. For example, the process to recall an elected official requires signatures from 25 percent of voters.

“Raising the threshold to 40 percent renders the power of the people to convene a grand jury and investigate misconduct useless,” Mock said.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said committee members discussed the threshold issue at length and decided the bar needed to be raised to convene a grand jury investigation.

“Should it take fewer people to threaten your job than it does to threaten your freedom?” Koppelman said, referencing the amount required to recall an official.

Mock also raised concerns about the addition of the word “felonious” to the description of willful and corrupt conduct of public officials that grand juries can investigate. Mock said most corrupt practices such as paying someone to vote are misdemeanors and therefore couldn’t be investigated by grand juries by adding the felony requirement.

Brabrandt said during his research of the grand jury process he visited with a third-year law student at the University of North Dakota.

“He informed me the joke around UND campus is you can indict a ham sandwich,” Brabrandt said.

The bill was supported by the North Dakota Association of Counties and the North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association.

Grand Forks attorney David Thompson, who drafted the petition filed in Dunn County involving bribery allegations against the governor, said he hopes the Senate “displays more enlightened judgment” when members consider this bill.

“This is done deliberately to make it more difficult to investigate political corruption,” Thompson said. “It’s a very tragic event if it ends up being enacted into law.”

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