Investigation Into ND Political Campaigns - Valley News Live - KVLY/KXJB - Fargo/Grand Forks

Investigation Into ND Political Campaigns

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     More than 80 people seeking elected offices in North Dakota are being questioned for the use of their publicly-funded, government-issued email addresses following a Valley News Live investigation.

    Now, Fargo City Commission Candidate John Strand says he's being unfairly called out for projecting his slogan on a public water tower because the man tasked with deciding whether charges should pressed against him is caught in the email scandal. Valley news team's Mellaney Moore has been investigating this campaign controversy.

The candidates you'll see on Tuesday's primary ballot are required to give contact information to the state: address, phone number, email. But it's the use of state and county emails that the man at the center of the projector flap calls a double-standard.

"You point one finger at somebody else you've got three fingers pointing back at yourself," says Fargo City Commission Candidate John Strand.

Strand has taken some heat for projecting his slogan onto a city water tower.

"We knew this would create some discussion because it's never been done in North Dakota," says Strand.

Birch Burdick, the Cass County State's Attorney tasked with decided whether or not charges will be filed against Strand is deflecting criticism over his use of his county email address to register his campaign for the primary.

"I put down the work email because that's the only way a government official, who I was expecting would be someone who would contact me off of that form, would know how to reach me during the day," says Burdick.

The North Dakota secretary of state says using an email address for a point of contact is not a violation of the Corrupt Practices Act, but using any government-issued property like email or a computer for campaign purposes is.

"In my case it is not a campaign email address. I have used it for no campaign purpose. I have received no campaign requests on it," Burdick says. 

Even though it is not a violation to use the email addresses as a point of contact, Strand says he still sees a problem.

"Here's the fact, that State's Attorney Burdick was using his state computer, probably, his state email address, his work state's attorney email address to file for his campaign. It is using the public resources," says Strand.

It's important to note that today Burdick removed his county email address from his campaign registration.

Also, a few legislators Valley News Live talked to yesterday mentioned paying a fee to use their government-issued computers.  The Legislative Council says legislators can pay a $10 fee per month to use the computers for personal business, but that does not include using state email addresses or the computer itself for campaign purposes.

Valley News Live is taking a closer look into several political campaigns all over the state of North Dakota.

The findings uncovered come on the heels of a complaint filed against Fargo City Commission candidate John Strand and his projecting of a campaign slogan on a publicly owned water tower. While we wait for that to be decided, this legal issue involves the campaigns of more than 80 candidates for public office in North Dakota. Valley News Team's Hope Hanselman investigates something that has been overlooked.

"You know, it's kind of a funny thing. The law is written very generally, you can't use public property in a campaign," North Dakota State Rep. Marvin Nelson explained on the phone.

According to North Dakota's election laws, no person is allowed to use any service or property provided by the state for political purposes. Valley News Live took a look at the Secretary of State's list of candidates running in the primary election and found more than 80 people listed a government issued email address to register for the primary election.

Most candidates who spoke with VNL on the issue explained these government email addresses as a gray area. Some explained it's nearly impossible to maintain the address strictly for office use. Others claim they're exempt from the stipulation by paying for the time they use it.

"Legislators have an option to pay 10 dollars a month to use a computer for personal use, not for political purposes. And, the form that I fill out is required by law," State Rep. Lois Delmore (D) said.

But, one name on the list caught our eye. According to the Secretary of State's records, Birch Burdick, current Cass County State's Attorney, registered with his government email address. He's also the attorney reviewing the complaint against John Strand. Burdick didn't return our phone calls, but he did respond over email.

"You are the only person to have used it to contact me pursuant to finding it on the election form, and I have not used it to contact others for a campaign purpose," Burdick wrote. Later, he says, "I am confident the use of this email address does not violate the statute."

This similar argument was made by John Strand's campaign staff:
"Emptying the ballot of quality candidates over such frivolous and inconsequential trivialities is not in the public’s best interest."
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