I think that as you are reading this, an investigation is under way by the North Dakota Office of Disciplinary Counsel into whether our Attorney General, Wayne Stenehjem, acted unethically, and possibly illegally, using state resources for political purposes, when he joined one of the many frivolous lawsuits to try to overturn Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States, acting officially on behalf of the State of North Dakota.
A few weeks ago, I shared with you a letter my friend Darrell Dorgan sent to the North Dakota Bar Association requesting the investigation after Stenehjem signed onto a lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General. The Bar Association referred Darrell to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a board with a staff of two people charged with handling complaints against North Dakota attorneys. Stenehjem might be the state’s top attorney, as attorney general, but he’s still just a lawyer expected to conform to rules of conduct. “Especially” since he’s the attorney general.
So now, Darrell has filed an official complaint with the North Dakota Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which is the staff for the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission, an arm of the Disciplinary Board of the North Dakota Supreme Court.
I printed Darrell’s letter to Stenehjem in my previous post, so I won’t print the whole letter of complaint, which contains much the same language, here. What’s pretty clear is that both before and after our attorney general signed onto the lawsuit on behalf of the citizens of the state of North Dakota, state employees were assigned to answer the phone and take comments from people both supporting and opposing North Dakota’s involvement. Dorgan also questioned whether state employees — members of Stenehjem’s staff — spent time writing briefs to join the suit.
Dorgan pointed out that the lawsuit Stenehjem signed onto was one of about 50 — actually, the number has now grown to about 60 — “half-hearted, tainted and misleading actions” by the president and his legal team which have all been “thrown out of court.” After all those cases had been dismissed, Dorgan said, Stenehjem’s actions were “a bit like a fire hydrant chasing a dog.”
“This was blatant partisan political activity using taxpayers’ dollars, in a case Stenehjem knew was already lost,” Dorgan told me. “He was joining others in asking for the disenfranchisement of four million voters. There was little or no evidence of cheating or fraud.”
“Trump simply lost by 7 million votes,” Dorgan continued. “When Stenehjem joined the frivolous suit, more than 35 judges had already thrown similar cases out of court because there was no evidence of fraud. Many of the ballots had already been counted more than once.”
So, now there’s a formal legal process under way. I called the Office of Disciplinary Counsel to ask what it plans to do about it. I talked to a nice young staff attorney named Ryan Heintz, who told me … nothing. Because, he said, there’s nothing he can tell me.
Under the rules governing the disciplinary board, he’s not even allowed to tell me that he received Darrell’s complaint, or that he wrote back.
He did write back. Darrell told me that. But the letter he sent to Darrell was marked CONFIDENTIAL in bold face and all capital letters, Darrell said.
But young Ryan sent me to the Supreme Court website, where I found out what is going to happen now. There will be some kind of investigation, if only cursory. Here’s what it says:
“When a written complaint alleging attorney misconduct is received, it is filed with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. After the complaint has been submitted, it will be reviewed and a determination will be made whether an investigation under the North Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct is merited.”
So even though Ryan couldn’t tell me anything, he sent me to a website outlining all the rules for disciplining lawyers, particularly something called Rule 3.1, where, he said, if there had been a complaint filed against Stenehjem by someone, I could learn how it would be handled.
Well, we know, because Darrell told me, there was a complaint filed. So now either Ryan or his boss, an attorney named Kara Erickson, will look into the complaint and decide if it should be forwarded to the actual Disciplinary Board, an 11-member board made up of mostly lawyers, appointed by the Supreme Court, or an “inquiry committee,” a nine-member board appointed by the State Bar Association of North Dakota, to begin a formal investigation.
What happens then, as I understand it, is Darrell’s complaint will be sent to Stenehjem, and the attorney general will write a response. The response will be sent to Darrell (I hope it’s not marked CONFIDENTIAL, so he can send it to me to share with you), and to the Disciplinary Counsel’s office. And then somebody, I’m not sure who, will decide if Stenehjem should be punished in some way. The rules say:
“If the complaint is not summarily dismissed after review, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel will investigate the matter. Once the investigation is completed, the matter will be referred to either the Inquiry Committee Southeast, Northeast or West of the State Bar Association. Actions available to the district inquiry committees are dismissal, issuing an admonition, probation with the consent of the respondent attorney, or directing that formal proceedings be started.
“Formal proceedings are begun when there is probable cause to believe that misconduct has occurred that deserves a public reprimand, suspension or disbarment. A petition for discipline is filed by Disciplinary Counsel, and a hearing panel is appointed by the chair of the Disciplinary Board to make findings and a recommendation. Present and past members of the Board may serve as hearing panel members.
“Recommendations of the hearing panel that do not result in dismissal, consent probation, or reprimand are filed directly with the Supreme Court. The hearing panel may enter orders of dismissal, consent probation or reprimand; however, they are subject to a petition for review that is filed with the Court.”
That process can take some time, as long as a few months. So don’t sit around holding your breath waiting to find out if our attorney general is going to be disbarred.
But here’s what we know for sure. Lawyers all over America filed lawsuits on behalf of Trump, trying to overturn the election of his opponent, Joe Biden, who will take office in less than two weeks. Because the lawsuits were unsuccessful, Trump gathered his troops in Washington on Wednesday and told them to storm the U.S. Capitol and see if they could get it done by force. They did that, at his instruction, creating one of the darkest days in American history.
An impressionable young woman died because she was led down a path to violence by the president of the United States. The president has blood on his hands. Seventeen attorneys general gave credence to Trump’s complaints by filing a lawsuit claiming, as Trump has been doing, that there was election fraud. That young woman believed them, too. I think those attorneys general, including our own, are complicit. They need to scrub their hands really hard, too.