An open letter to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem

Mr. Attorney General,

First, a thanks and congratulations for your long-time public service and your contribution to the state’s broad recognition as a good place to live and to do business.

However, there is a cancer eating at the very core of civil society in North Dakota, a disease infecting the body politic, an ailment that threatens the relationship between the governed and those who govern and administrate. Left unchecked, this cancer threatens to destroy this important bond of trust and mutual respect. In fact, that bond might well be in tatters now.

Furthermore, sir, you might be the only individual in the state who can address the problem.

What has people infuriated is a sense that there are two justice system in this state – one for the average person and one for those people who make up the government class, particularly elected officials.

In Ward County, taxpayers are furious about the county’s handling of the case revolving around former sheriff Steve Kukowski. A prisoner died in transit in the aftermath of being denied medical attention at a jail that was then operating outside the legal parameters set by the state. Yet, after some year-and-a-half and two investigations claiming wrong-doing, there was no one held accountable for the death. The specter of political intervention loomed large when Kukowski walked away having never faced trial and with a nice bonus from taxpayers for all the pain and suffering he endured during his year-plus paid time off. Someone died. No one was accountable. Taxpayers got the bill.

Meanwhile in McKenzie County, another sheriff found himself in hot water – well, it would be hot water if he was maybe just a taxpayer. According to the investigating agent with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Sheriff Gary Schwartenberger “did commit the crime misapplication of entrusted property.” Special Agent Tim Erickson went on to attest: “Gary Schwartenberger… willfully and without authorization used the McKenzie County Sheriff’s credit card to make unauthorized purchases and charges of items intended for personal use… These charges included purchasing a plane ticket to Las Vegas for his wife… paying for a golf outing in Las Vegas, paying the conference registration fee for his wife, charging a rental vehicle upgrade fee for a convertible car, unauthorized food purchases, and various other unauthorized charges…”

So what form does a quest for answers and accountability in this case take? Ward County’s own William John O’Driscoll, who was special prosecutor in Schwartenberger’s removal proceedings, withdrew from the case, writing that a removal of the sheriff “is not appropriate.”

Respectfully, please re-read the previous two paragraphs.

Is not appropriate?

Perhaps Mr. O’Driscoll, witnessing the chicanery in the Ward County case, just figures it’s a waste of time.

Is there any crime an elected official can be accused of that even warrants a day in court? How many young people must die unnecessarily before a responsible party in the political class is held accountable? Is there a book available for residents so that they can have a better idea of the laws that only apply to people who just pay taxes but that don’t apply to those who live off the taxpayers?

Now, Mr. Attorney General, you might respond that these are local matters. That’s valid to a degree. But you’re the state’s top law enforcement figure and if you aren’t charged with policing other law enforcement officials statewide, exactly who is? You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t feel that there is something at least unsavory about these incidents; and at worst, many believe this has been outright public corruption. Doesn’t that fall under your purview?

A sense that there is a two-tier justice system, one for everyday citizens and one for government figures has been a key motivator in the political unrest in the country. Maybe folks in North Dakota should just expect it. But North Dakotans are fair-minded and decent and project this onto their leaders. Is that trust misplaced?

Taxpayers in Ward County and supporters of justice and fairness statewide anticipate your response.


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