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Kyle Potter, Published August 15 2013

Skarphol says he's one of ND lawmakers seeking University System emails

BISMARCK – Rep. Bob Skarphol, the state lawmaker who called a hearing this spring to highlight what he called an “effort to discredit” then-Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, is responsible for at least some of the anonymously made open records requests for North Dakota university and college presidents’ emails.

In a phone interview Thursday, after first saying he wouldn’t admit to or deny any involvement, Skarpohl said: “I’m not behind all of the requests that have been made. I have made a request or two. So have others.”

Though not speaking particularly about requests for emails, Skarphol said he and other legislators are “still very focused on trying to get the facts behind all of what went on” leading up to Shirvani’s ouster in early June.

The Tioga Republican’s admission offers the first glimpse at which legislator, or legislators, are behind the ongoing requests for university presidents’ emails. The Legislative Council, on behalf of unnamed lawmakers, has made a dozen open records requests so far this year to the North Dakota University System, including one which led to the discovery that 40,000-some emails had been deleted from North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani’s account.

“Somebody had to delete 45,000 emails. That’s the real issue that ought to be talked about,” Skarphol said.

The Legislative Council‘s most recent request seeks all 10 university presidents’ emails since last July. It is expected to generate more than 100,000 emails, and University System officials have said the request is so broad that it may take until the end of the year to fulfill, prompting some legislators to ask if it’s frivolous and unnecessary.

Skarphol declined to discuss whether he was a part of that request.

Shirvani’s opponents and supporters in the Legislature acknowledge that their battle over Shirvani’s place in North Dakota higher education system didn’t end when the remaining two years on his three-year contract were bought out for nearly $1 million on June 3. It’s simply shifted to new ground: emails and open record requests.

“There was a yearlong fight to have the man removed, and there were sides, said Fargo Republican Rep. Kathy Hawken, a vocal Shirvani critic. “They’re still there.”

The email saga publicly surfaced back in late June, when the Legislative Council asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to weigh in on whether the mass deletion violated the state’s open records laws. Some of those emails were supposed to have been turned over to the council in response to an April 29 open records request.

In that initial query, the legislator asked for emails from a number of officials and staff members in the world of North Dakota higher education, many of whom were believed to be tied to efforts to undermine Shirvani.

Skarphol called a number of those same staffers in for a legislative hearing on April 5. Among them was Linda Baeza Porter, a University System staffer who had previously accused Shirvani of fraud by purposefully presenting misleading information about NDSU and the University of North Dakota to make the two schools – and its presidents – look bad.

In his hearing, Skarphol called Porter’s testimony a coordinated ploy to have Shirvani ousted. A University System audit eventually cleared Shirvani of wrongdoing but said the chancellor’s presentation on graduation and retention rates could have been construed as misleading.

Last week, acting chancellor and Bismarck State College President Larry Skogen told lawmakers that the Legislative Council’s most recent request would cost the University System more than $26,000 in legal fees to fulfill. University System spokeswoman Linda Donlin said the total cost may exceed $40,000.

In an interim Higher Education Funding Committee meeting Aug. 6, Rep. Bob Martinson, another of Shirvani’s critics, said he believes the anonymous legislator may already have the “smoking gun” he or she is looking for.

“If I were the one, and I had what I thought was the big bad email, I’d just bring it out and say ‘Here’s what I’m looking for,’” the Bismarck Republican said. “This is really being used to cause people problems. That’s the issue.”

In that hearing, legislators floated possible tweaks to the state’s open records law, perhaps forcing legislators to pick up the tab for outsized requests. Unlike the public or news organizations, the Legislative Council generally isn’t billed for the cost of redacting its requests for sensitive information.

But the message to the unnamed legislator – which was primarily coming from Shirvani’s critics – was clear: put up or stop it.

“If, in fact, there isn’t something significant, then why are we spending this money when these people could be doing something constructive for the state of North Dakota?” Hawken said in an interview.

Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, said he’s been concerned from the start with the discrepancies in how many emails were dumped. Was it 45,375, as was verified by University System employees and one snapshot of Bresciani’s account confirms? Or was it 43,604, which NDSU officials say a different snapshot reports?

“If everyone was honest and upfront, maybe the (most recent) request wouldn’t have gone to the degree that it did,” said Dosch, a Shirvani supporter.

Dosch said he did not make the recent request for presidents’ emails dating back to July 2012.

Skarphol said the legislators calling for evidence of the request’s value “are so obviously focused on trying to ensure” that the emails don’t come to light.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502