Our Strength is from the Soil


In my last email newsletter,  I asked why, oh why, has North Dakota’s Attorney General Drew Wrigley been so lame on enforcing the state’s anti-corporate farming law in regards to the recent purchase of farm land by Bill Gates. At the end of that essay, I asked AG Wrigley to appoint a Special Assistant Attorney General to get to the bottom of the Gates land purchase.

I made an open records request (see footnote) to find out more about Wrigley’s practices on appointment of and payment for Special Assistant Attorney Generals. My request was limited to data from the six months from April 1 to September 30, 2022. To my surprise, I was told by the helpful staff that there was so much information it would be easiest to put it on a flash drive. I just got a chance to dive into what is within that flash drive and I was shocked at what I found.

I found that most of  the payments made for work conducted by Special Assistant Attorneys General for most state agencies were modest, sometimes only for an hour or two or for specific projects. Some of the payments are for salaries of attorneys who work full-time work for an agency. For example, the Agriculture Department now has a full time attorney (when I was Commissioner of Agriculture, I would have welcomed such a person) and the Tax Department has three full time attorneys. Bravo!! I think the State of North Dakota gets great value from these full time, in-house attorneys who work closely with the agency staff members and are on the spot and available for guidance and advice. Hiring full time lawyers helps to develop in-house expertise on the specific legal issues (agriculture regulations, tax laws) that arise in the course of the agency’s work.

But I had a different reaction when I looked at the Industrial Commission’s May, July and September 2022 reports on payment for outside lawyers hired by the Industrial Commission. (April, June, and August are nonexistent or were missing from the flash drive.) It is notable that these payments have a triple imprimatur from Wrigley: approval as a member of the Industrial Commission, approval as the official lawyer for the Industrial Commission, and approval as the official designated by the legislature in N.D.C.C. Section 54-12-13 to review the activities of the Special Assistant Attorneys General before authorizing payment.

My reaction was shock. The fees were massive!

The fees arise from litigation that has been going on for years: North Dakota v. E.P.A., a long standing case started under Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem arising from federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

“This is a tremendous victory for North Dakota and for every state,” Wrigley bragged, when the case wrapped up on June 30, 2022 after years of litigation. What he didn’t say was that the case also came with a tremendous cost to the taxpayers of North Dakota. I did get an inkling that, well, Drew Wrigley is not so good at sharing credit for the results of legal work started years earlier under his predecessor, Wayne Stenehjem. We’ll have to wait to see if he will also accept responsibility for the costs of this case.

Did other states that were helped by this victory kick in money for the cost of the litigation? I have no idea. My little snippet of a request for records regarding approved expenditures by SAAGs covered only a six month period (April 1 to September 31, 2022) but there were many records that were responsive.

The big shocker to me was that Wrigley approved more than $1,300,000 in legal fees and costs for a passel of lawyers from Greenberg Traurig LLP, a large law firm located in Denver, Colorado.

Ironically, Paul Seby, the attorney who billed the most hours and who was paid the most by North Dakota taxpayers – $181,350 in May, $152,000 in July, and $157,450 in September – isn’t even licensed to practice in North Dakota. And I’m guessing that this $1.3 million of North Dakota taxpayer dollars is but a very tiny portion of the fees paid over the course of the litigation. Could this burden have been shared with the coal companies?  With power plants? With other states?

I’m not opposed to paying lawyers for their time and I’m not opposed to suing the federal government, as in North Dakota v. EPA. Been there, done that. My book, The Farmer’s Lawyer, is about suing the federal government. But as a North Dakota taxpayer, I think there should be oversight and frugality with state tax dollars. I think the citizens and the legislature need full disclosure. What was the total cost of this litigation that lasted for multiple years? If other states benefited (as stated in Wrigley’s press release), have they reimbursed North Dakota? If not, why not? Were these legal bills carefully reviewed prior to payment? Why, if the case ended on June 30 (according to Drew Wrigley’s press release) was a bill submitted on October 7, 2022 for $397,045.62 in costs and services for September?  There might be a good explanation, but overall it is incongruous, to put it kindly.

Bottom line: I think Attorney General Wrigley can find a few bucks in order to protect the family farmers of this state from any and all corporations (not just Bill Gates’ controlled corporations) who may seek to evade North Dakota’s anti corporate farming law.

Let’s stand with family farmers, and provide them firm and unwavering support analogous to the support that the state gave coal companies and power plants in North Dakota v. EPA. The motto on the Coat of Arms of North Dakota is “STRENGTH FROM THE SOIL”. North Dakota family farmers deserve a vigorous investigation to determine whether Bill Gates’ purchases of farmland are legal or are illegal under the North Dakota anti-corporate farming law.

Footnote: On October 16, 2022, I submitted  an open records request for “3) Any and all copies of forms submitted by agencies of state government for approval by the Attorney General and approvals by the Attorney General of such forms from April 1, 2022 to September 30, 2022, pursuant to NDCC Section  54-12-13, which provides as follows: “Special assistant attorneys general report of salaries and expenses.   All departments that pay salaries or expenses of special assistant attorneys general shall report all such expenditures monthly to the attorney general upon such forms as must be prescribed by the attorney general. And all such salaries and expenses must be approved by the attorney general.” 

Image from agrowingculture.org

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