Published May 4, 2024

Dem-NPL leader calls on Bismarck lawmaker to resign after guilty verdict

Written by
The Dakotan
| The Dakotan
Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, listens during his misdemeanor criminal trial at the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)
Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, listens during his misdemeanor criminal trial at the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

A jury found a state lawmaker guilty of violating an obscure conflict-of-interest law after a 10-hour trial Friday.

At issue in the case was Rep. Jason Dockter’s involvement in the lease of a Bismarck building to the Attorney General’s Office and the North Dakota Department of Health and his subsequent votes on agency budgets.

The jury took about 90 minutes to deliberate after hearing several hours of testimony from state officials.

South Central Judicial District Judge Weiler deferred sentencing Dockter on the misdemeanor until a later date, noting it had been a long and emotional day for everyone and she wanted time to think.

The building deal originally came together during Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s tenure. The representative was friends with Stenehjem, and previously served as his campaign treasurer. Stenehjem died in office in 2022.

Dockter, a Bismarck Republican, later voted on budgets for the Attorney General’s Office and the North Dakota Department of Health in the 2021 and 2023 sessions, which spurred the criminal charge by prosecutor Ladd Erickson in December 2023. Erickson, the McLean County state’s attorney, brought the case as a special assistant AG to Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer.

Dockter took the stand and defended his actions by pointing to House Rule 321, which holds that lawmakers must vote on legislation unless they have a conflict of interest that affects them “directly, individually, uniquely and substantially.”

Dockter said he did not feel his situation met that standard. He’s only ever attempted to recuse himself once during his 12-year tenure in the Legislature, he told jurors — and that was when his business partner in his payroll company testified on a bill. Dockter said his fellow lawmakers allowed him to vote on the legislation anyway.

The representative declined to comment after the trial. Erickson also declined to comment.

Rep. Emily O’Brien — chair of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, a panel of lawmakers that conducted a significant review of the building deal — disputed the verdict.

“I don’t agree with the guilty charge whatsoever,” she said after the trial.

While on the stand, the Grand Forks Republican said based on the committee’s inquiry into the matter, she does not feel Dockter is guilty of wrongdoing.

In his closing statement, Erickson told the jury that Dockter willfully cast the votes despite accumulating a significant stake in the property — and that his circumstance was not as ordinary as the representative claimed it was.

“This is not some sort of tangential benefit, this is a specific benefit,” Erickson said.

In both opening and closing remarks, Dockter’s lawyer, Lloyd Suhr, warned that a conviction could set a dangerous precedent and bring North Dakota’s citizen legislature to a standstill if lawmakers become fearful of legal consequences for voting.

That led Weiler to scold Suhr after the jury left to deliberate.

“If you ever threaten my jury again, you yourself will have an ethics issue,” Weiler said.

While the courtroom was mostly empty after jury selection, some state officials stayed to watch for part or all of the trial — including House Majority Leader Mike Lefor. Dockter’s family was also present for the duration of the trial.

Suhr said that his client was being unfairly targeted for doing his job and that Dockter’s situation is not unique among his fellow lawmakers.

“This case is about a legislator doing their job and being prosecuted for a crime,” Suhr said during opening remarks. Suhr later told jurors that the issue was not criminal, and should be decided at the ballot box, not the jury box.

The story starts in 2019 during the legislative session. One day, Dockter bumped into Lonnie Grabowska, director of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, in a hallway of the Capitol.

Grabowska told Dockter that the BCI — which is under the AG’s office — was short on office space and looking to move to a bigger location. Dockter referred him to the Bismarck building and eventually helped coordinate the lease. The Department of Health happened to  already be renting space at the property.

Grabowska and Dockter have known each other since middle school, Grabowska testified.

After the AG’s Office signed the lease, a company Dockter has partial ownership of bought the property. A construction company Dockter has an interest in was also paid to renovate the property, according to Erickson.

Suhr, however, said Dockter was just helping Grabowska solve a problem, and that the business arrangement was fair and above-board.

After these business deals took place, Dockter voted on budgets for state agencies that included rent for the property.

During the 2021 legislative session, Dockter voted on both the Attorney General’s Office budget and the Department of Health budget.

Dockter voted on the Department of Health budget again in 2023, but was absent for votes on the Attorney General’s Office budget. Dockter testified he believed he did not vote on the budget that year because he had COVID-19 and was quarantining.

Legislative records for the House of Representatives, however, show that Dockter did vote on other bills on April 10 and April 27 in 2023 — the two days the AG office budget came to the floor for a vote. The House journals show Dockter voted on bills directly before and after the House voted on the budget in question.

Rebecca Binstock, executive director of the North Dakota Ethics Commission, testified that she indicated to Suhr that Dockter should be careful about voting on the AG’s Office budget. She said she was not aware at the time that Dockter had also leased part of the building to the Department of Health, however.

John Bjornson, director of Legislative Council, testified that in his more than 30 years working with the Legislature, he’s never seen a lawmaker sit out a vote due to a conflict of interest. He said that if lawmakers were to recuse themselves from voting any time a bill they have a tangential interest in comes up, it would hamper the legislative process.

During the trial, Erickson also played an episode of Forum Communications columnist Rob Port’s podcast in which Dockter was interviewed about the building deal.

Port asked Dockter how, regardless of the representative’s intentions, he could defend the lease to a skeptical public. 

“People know that we are citizens, we have other lives besides the Legislature,” Dockter told Port in the episode.

Judge Weiler instructed the jury to convict Dockter if they felt Erickson had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Dockter willfully took an official action likely to benefit him as a result of acquiring a financial interest in a “property, transaction or enterprise,” or as a result of a “speculation or wager” which he made or caused someone else to make related to an official action.

The case was referred to Erickson for prosecution by the North Dakota Ethics Commission.

The misdemeanor charge against Dockter is based on a statute that states “if as a public servant he takes official action which is likely to benefit him as a result of an acquisition of a pecuniary interest in any property, transaction, or enterprise, or of a speculation or wager, which he made, or caused or aided another to make, in contemplation of such official action.”

The maximum sentence for someone convicted of a Class A misdemeanor in North Dakota is up to one year in jail and up to a $3,000 fine, or both. Dockter has the opportunity to appeal.

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