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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published May 09 2013

ND Supreme Court hears appeal from Measure 2 backers

BISMARCK – Proponents of last year’s failed Measure 2 felt wronged after a district court judge ordered them to pay attorney fees and issue a retraction over their claims that public officials acted corruptly when speaking out against the measure.

The group, Empower the Taxpayers, filed an appeal, which was heard in front of the state Supreme Court on Thursday.

Charlene Nelson, chairwoman of the nonprofit group that pushed for the abolishment of property taxes, said the group felt the attorney fees and retraction were punitive. “It was our right to appeal to the government when we feel a wrong has been done,” she said.

The group originally filed suit in February 2012, alleging that some public officials and entities had violated provisions of the Corrupt Practices Act in North Dakota law, by distributing what the group said was false and misleading information about the effects of the measure before it went to a statewide vote.

The district court called the suit “frivolous” and dismissed the action, concluding that there wasn’t enough standing to bring a corruption charge, which is a criminal law, and that the defendants, ranging from Tax Commissioner Cory Fong to state legislators and county officials, did not violate any laws since some of the comments were made prior to a law established in August 2011 that said public officials can’t lobby for or against an initiated measure.

Nelson said the group filed the complaint after it had exhausted all other options after asking for an opinion from the attorney general and local state’s attorneys.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to petition the government for redress. We were exercising that right for what we felt was a misuse of taxpayer funds and resources and misuse of public trust,” she said. “Now, it appears our opponents are retaliating with punitive judgment.”

The state officials did not seek any sanctions. Four county officials asked for damages: Divide County Commissioner Doug Graupe, former Cass County Commissioner Scott Wagner, Wahpeton Finance Director Darcie Huwe and Williams County Auditor Beth Innis.

Innis and Huwe deferred questions to their attorney; the other two were unable to be reached.

The attorney representing the four officials, Randall Bakke, said they were asking for about $26,000 in legal fees and costs.

It is unclear when the court may rule.