There is no shortage of coverage on what is taking place near Standing Rock. The pipeline protest entering its fifth month has been top of mind in our region. As the Army Corps of Engineers issued a date for protesters to leave the site, we hold our breath for a peaceful resolution for both sides. At times it has become difficult to determine which side of the story being told is accurate. Yet, this post isn’t about the ongoing protest or whether you agree or disagree with the pipeline. This is about key decision making in state government.
A series of events have led us to this point. Public hearings, disputed sacred grounds, peaceful protests, non-peaceful protests, patience by law enforcement, moments of questionable use of force have all made local and national headlines. One of the key events was the September purchase of 7,000 acres of private land by Dakota Access LLC. This purchase was significant because it was a true test of the longstanding anti-corporate farming law in North Dakota. Voters overwhelmingly upheld the law in the June 2016 primary. 76% of voters rejected the Republican push spearheaded by State Senator Terry Wanzek of rural Jamestown to loosen corporate farming restrictions.
The legal question of the purchase landed at the feet of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. You’ll recall Stenehjem unsuccessfully ran against Doug Burgum for the NDGOP Gubernatorial nod. Though unsuccessful at the ballot box, Stenehjem was successful in raising money for his candidacy. One of the larger contributions, $10,000, can be seen here:
So who is Lawrence Bender that gave candidate Wayne Stenehjem $10,000? According to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s site, Bender is an Attorney at Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.. The company’s website lists Bender’s portfolio as focusing on Oil and Gas because of his extensive experience. What is Bender’s experience you ask? Here is the explanation according to the firm’s site:
“Prior to joining the firm, Lawrence served as an Assistant Attorney General of the State of North Dakota and as Counsel for the North Dakota Industrial Commission, Oil & Gas Division, and the North Dakota Board of University & School Lands, giving him first-hand knowledge of the regulation of oil and gas companies in the state.”
He also successfully helped finish the land deal between the rancher and Dakota Access LLC now before Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, his former boss. On November 22nd, Stenehjem sided with Dakota Access LLC on the land purchase saying it did not violate the state’s anti-corporate farming law.
Now, I’m not saying this perfectly legal contribution by a private citizen to a candidate they favor did, in fact, influence the Attorney General opinion. But the perception of ND officials being cozy with the energy industry or individuals directly involved with it has been debated since the oil boom began. This may lend itself as yet another example. Doesn’t this raise the question in your mind of just how cozy these relationships are? Do you think the courtship has had any impact on state government decisions? “Follow the money,” they say. I think it is time we all lace up our boots and follow that money trail for answers.
(Editor’s note: According to a reader, Bender was no longer with the AG office when Stenehjem took over. Thanks for the feedback.)