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Published November 26 2013

Forum editorial: Email mystery will linger

The North Dakota University System’s botched handling of an open records request unfortunately means that we’ll likely never know how more than 43,000 emails were deleted from the North Dakota State University president’s account earlier this year. The bungling is disturbing because, among other consequences, it resulted in violation of open records laws.

Whether intentionally deleted – by President Dean Bresciani or another – or whether automatically purged, the trove of emails in question originated during the higher education leadership crisis caused by former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s blundering and autocratic tenure, which ended in June when his contract was bought out for almost $1 million. Bresciani’s emails were sought by the Legislative Council, at the behest of several lawmakers, and The Forum under open records requests. Shirvani had been feuding with university presidents before his ouster.

Although the higher education system has moved on, under the stable and competent management of interim Chancellor Larry Skogen, a divisive residue from the Shirvani days unfortunately lingers, kept alive by Shirvani’s allies in the North Dakota Legislature. As one of the most vocal of them made clear, the bitterness over Shirvani’s ouster will continue. “There will be a great deal of work done on this,” Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, seethed.

Trying to smooth ruffled feathers, and put the controversy to bed, Skogen issued a statement pointing out that there was no evidence that Bresciani or anyone else deliberately deleted the cache of emails, which spanned a period of Nov. 1, 2012, through May 1, 2013. But that’s precisely the problem, and Skogen should do what he can to look for any evidence. For reasons that go unexplained, and despite an information technology staff member’s exhortation that it was “imperative” to secure the backup file, no action was taken. Because the backup is no longer available, nobody can determine whether the emails were deleted or automatically purged.

In scathing comments, Skarphol took Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to task for not getting to the bottom of whether the thousands of emails were deliberately deleted or simply purged automatically, as Bresciani insists. Stenehjem’s office did not contact the university system’s information technology chief at the time, insinuating that the review was less than thorough. But Stenehjem is barred from answering questions of fact in an open records opinion; the public entity must provide facts to his office.

Stenehjem concluded that the University System violated open records laws by failing to respond in a timely fashion to the Legislative Council’s request for university presidents’ emails. He found that the response to the record request was both incomplete and unreasonably delayed. Unfortunately, the mishandling of such a sensitive inquiry does nothing to restore public confidence; it means that questions will persist about university system intrigues during the damaging Shirvani crisis.


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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.