The Soul of North Dakota: Again At Risk?

In 2016, Willie Nelson and I wrote an essay “Measure 1 Is About the Soul of North Dakota.” It was about saving the North Dakota anti-corporate farm law. Six years later, this law is again at risk. And, this time the risk comes from an unexpected source.

In November 2021, an entity called the Red River Trust with ties to Bill Gates purchased a $13.5 million farm in eastern North Dakota. Just recently, in August 2022, the High Plains Reader (HPR) published a story with the caption “Sarah Vogel Investigates Bill Gates North Dakota Land Purchase.” I wish the caption could have read “North Dakota Attorney General Investigates Bill Gates Land Purchase” but unfortunately, all signs indicate that Attorney General Drew Wrigley is refusing to properly enforce North Dakota’s Anti Corporate Farming Law.

“In North Dakota, no one–and no corporation–is above the law.  Not even Bill Gates…”

All the attorney general needs to do is verify that an individual or qualified non-corporate entity is the sole beneficiary of the Red River Trust. That’s basic due diligence: looking at the actual trust document to verify that a legal entity owns over $13 million of prime North Dakota farmland. If not, the purchase is illegal according to North Dakota law. The investigation was closed on June 29, 2022.  News stories throughout the country carried headlines that the North Dakota Attorney General said that the Gates land purchase was legal, end of story.

Still concerned, I followed up. I asked for updates from the AG’s office. On August 16, I received a few emails that showed the representatives of the Trust and the state of North Dakota had some phone calls and sent some emails back and forth, mostly about trying to line up phone calls, but again, there was nothing that would indicate that the trust document had been disclosed.

So, as of August 16, 2022, there was still no record indicating that the Attorney General’s office had seen or obtained a copy of the Red River Trust document, without which the legality of the purchase cannot be validated. Instead, I recently obtained records that raise even more questions.

The first comes from an email dated July 28, 2022 from Matthew Thompson, local North Dakota attorney for the Red River Trust. (Thompson is from the Fargo Vogel Law Firm, which has no relation to me or my family.) He suggested to Matt Sagsveen, the Solicitor General, that it would be “beneficial to schedule a conference call with the Attorney General, you, me and Mike Rodden, who is Mr. Gates’ lead counsel responsible for his investments.”   (Emphasis supplied.) Mr. Rodden is general counsel for Cascade Investments, LLC, a $70 billion investment arm for Bill Gates’ personal wealth, according to Wikipedia.

There were no documents indicating that such a conference call occurred. But why would Michael Rodden, counsel for Mr. Gates, want to have a conference call with Attorney General Wrigley? North Dakota law doesn’t prohibit rich people from buying farmland. If Bill Gates is the sole beneficiary of the Red River Trust, there is nothing to worry about. His representatives should be eager to “let” the Attorney General’s office review the trust for compliance with North Dakota law.

The second development comes from emails showing that on August 4, 2022, Deputy Attorney General Claire Ness sent an email authorizing Mr. Sagsveen “to make the necessary decisions regarding the trust document.” Ness instructed him to tell Gates’ attorneys that they have “three options”:

# 1:  “They can let you review the necessary provision of the trust document at their office.”

# 2:  “They can provide the necessary provision of the trust document to our office for review.”

# 3:  “Our office can reopen the matter.”

I thought the first suggestion was obsequious. Why should the Solicitor General of North Dakota have to travel to Fargo to see a document?  I think it is because they were in a weak position – the news had already gone out nationwide that the Attorney General of North Dakota had ruled that the purchase was legal.

The attorney general must see the Red River Trust beneficiary’s name because there are all kinds of trusts, not just those that families use to provide for young or disabled relatives. That isn’t always how the word “trust” is used today. Go to the Secretary of State’s website and search for the word “trust.” Instantly, hundreds of entries with the word “trust” appear. According to these entries, trusts can include banks, partnerships, corporations, churches, real estate investment firms, charities, nonprofit corporations, and more. A lot of these “trusts” are from out of state. And the only “Red River Trust” registered in North Dakota to do business is the fictitious partnership name that was registered on February 15, 2022 by the Campbell Farms of Grafton, allegedly without the knowledge of the actual Red River Trust.

The attorney general needs to determine whether the direct beneficiary of the Red River Trust is

    • Bill Gates, the individual
    • A corporation that Bill Gates controls and of which Bill Gates is the beneficiary
    • Cascade Investment, LLC, a corporation which is the largest farmland owner in the United States, per Wikipedia
    • Cottonwood Management LLC, a corporation which is a subsidiary of Cascade Investment, LLC. Cottonwood has the same address as Peter Headley. Peter Headley runs the “ag investment platform” for Bill Gates. We learned from early open records disclosures that Peter Headley is the trustee whose name is on the deeds for the Red River Trust’s farmland in North Dakota’s Pembina County and Cavalier County.

In North Dakota, no one–and no corporation–is above the law.  Not even Bill Gates, and certainly not corporations owned by Bill Gates. Someone needs to get to the bottom of this but I now think it shouldn’t be Drew Wrigley.

The Anti Corporate Farming law says that “[t]he attorney general shall commence an action in the district court of the county in which the substantial portion of farmland or ranchland used in violation of this chapter is situated if the attorney general has reason to believe that any person is violating this chapter.”

Drew Wrigley is ducking his official duties. He did not write a single substantive email disclosed during any of my open records requests. I think he is staying as far away from this issue as he can. Why? Maybe it is because Governor Doug Burgum appointed Drew Wrigley to office. Burgum’s wealth rests in large part upon Microsoft’s buyout of his Great Plains Software company and Burgum worked closely with Bill Gates as a top Microsoft executive. Burgum also received a $100,000 donation from Bill Gates when he first ran for Governor. I now think Drew Wrigley has an actual or apparent conflict of interest. This would explain his timid, dilatory, half-hearted non-enforcement of the anti-corporate farming law as applied to Bill Gates and the Red River Trust.

Rule 1.3 of the North Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct provides: “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” The “clients” here are the family farmers and citizens of North Dakota. Wrigley is not working for them with reasonable diligence or promptness.

There is a solution, however.  Attorney General Wrigley can and should appoint a special assistant attorney general who will work independently of both Wrigley and Governor Burgum on behalf of the citizens of North Dakota (see NDCC Section 54-12-08).  That’s what good government looks like.

To learn more about these issues and tangible ways you can help family farmers, wherever you live, visit the Learn More section of my website.