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Jury finds Rep. Dockter guilty of misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge

Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, testifies on direct examination by his protection counsel throughout his misdemeanor legal trial on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Updated at 6:45 p.m:

A jury discovered a state lawmaker guilty of a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge on Friday.

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A trial of a state lawmaker boiled right down to the consultant’s interpretation of a House ethics rule.

Jurors started deliberating at 5 p.m. Friday on whether or not to seek out Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, guilty of voting on laws he had a monetary curiosity in.

At subject within the case is Dockter’s involvement within the lease of a Bismarck constructing to the Attorney General’s Office and the North Dakota Department of Health.

The constructing deal initially got here collectively throughout Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s tenure. The consultant was associates with Stenehjem, and beforehand served as his marketing campaign treasurer. Stenehjem died in workplace in 2022.

Lloyd Suhr, protection lawyer for Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, delivers closing arguments to jurors throughout Dockter’s misdemeanor legal trial on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024, in entrance of Judge Bobbi Weiler. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Ladd Erickson, state’s lawyer for McLean County, delivers closing arguments to the jury for the prosecution through the trial of Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024, in entrance of Judge Bobbi Weiler. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, testifies throughout his misdemeanor legal trial on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Rep. Jason Dockter, proper, R-Bismarck, converses along with his lawyer throughout his misdemeanor trial on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Rebecca Binstock, government director of the North Dakota Ethics Commission, testifies for the prosecution through the trial of Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024, in entrance of Judge Bobbi Weiler. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

John Bjornson, director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, testifies for the prosecution through the trial of Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024, in entrance of Judge Bobbi Weiler. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Dockter later voted on budgets for the Attorney General Office and the North Dakota Department of Health within the 2021 and 2023 classes, which spurred the legal charge by prosecutor Ladd Erickson in December 2023. Erickson, the McLean County state’s lawyer, is bringing the case as a particular 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 should vote on laws except they’ve a battle of curiosity that impacts them “directly, individually, uniquely and substantially.”

Dockter mentioned he didn’t really feel his scenario met that customary. He’s solely ever tried to recuse himself as soon as throughout his 12-year tenure within the Legislature, he informed jurors — and that was when somebody concerned in his payroll enterprise testified on a invoice. Dockter mentioned his fellow lawmakers allowed him to vote on the laws anyway.

In his closing assertion, Erickson informed the jury that Dockter willfully solid the votes regardless of accumulating a major stake within the property — and that his circumstance was not as unusual because the consultant mentioned it was.

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

In each opening and shutting remarks, Dockter’s lawyer, Lloyd Suhr, warned {that a} conviction may set a harmful precedent and produce North Dakota’s citizen legislature to a standstill if lawmakers turn out to be fearful of authorized penalties for voting.

That led South Central Judicial District Judge Bobbi 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 mentioned.

Suhr mentioned that his shopper was being unfairly focused for doing his job and that Dockter’s scenario isn’t distinctive amongst his fellow lawmakers.

“This case is about a legislator doing their job and being prosecuted for a crime,” Suhr mentioned throughout opening remarks.

The story begins in 2019 through the legislative session, Erickson mentioned Friday. Dockter ran into Lonnie Grabowska, who leads the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which is underneath the AG’s workplace.

Grabowska informed Dockter that the BCI was brief on workplace area and seeking to transfer to a much bigger location, so Dockter referred him to the Bismarck constructing and helped coordinate the lease. The Department of Health was already renting area on the property.

According to Suhr, Grabowska and Dockter have recognized one another since center college. 

After the AG’s Office signed the lease, an organization Dockter has partial possession of purchased the property. A development firm Dockter owns was additionally paid to renovate the property, in response to Erickson.

Erickson characterised the event of the lease deal as Dockter utilizing his standing as a lawmaker for his personal non-public achieve. 

Suhr, nevertheless, mentioned Dockter was simply serving to Grabowska clear up an issue, and that the enterprise association was honest and above-board.

In his closing assertion, Suhr mentioned Dockter was merely doing Grabowska “a favor.”

After creating a monetary curiosity within the property, Dockter voted on budgets for state companies that included lease for the property.

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

Dockter voted on the Department of Health funds once more in 2023, however was absent for votes on the Attorney General’s Office funds. Dockter testified he believed he didn’t vote on the funds that yr as a result of he had COVID-19.

Rebecca Binstock, government director of the North Dakota Ethics Commission, testified that she really useful that Dockter not vote on the AG’s Office invoice that yr. She mentioned she was not conscious that Dockter had additionally leased half of the constructing to the Department of Health, nevertheless.

Suhr careworn that Dockter is one of many lawmakers who vote on laws that’s tangentially associated to their careers outdoors the Legislature, and that the legal charge is unfairly singling the consultant out.

After the attorneys’ opening statements, Erickson performed an episode of Forum Communications columnist Rob Port’s podcast during which Dockter was interviewed in regards to the constructing deal.

Port requested Dockter how, regardless of the consultant’s intentions, he may defend the lease to a skeptical public. 

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

Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, listens throughout his misdemeanor legal trial on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, testifies for the protection through the trial of Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024, in entrance of Judge Bobbi Weiler. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

South Central Judicial District Court Judge Bobbi Weiler observes proceedings from the bench through the misdemeanor legal trial of Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

North Dakota State Auditor Josh Gallion testifies through the trial of Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024, in entrance of Judge Bobbi Weiler. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Bureau of Criminal Investigation Director Lonnie Grabowska testifies for the protection through the trial of Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

Rep. Jason Dockter, proper, R-Bismarck, sits subsequent to protection lawyer Lloyd Suhr throughout his misdemeanor trial on the Burleigh County Courthouse on May 3, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

According to jury directions learn by Judge Weiler, the jury ought to vote to convict Dockter if Erickson proves past an affordable doubt that Dockter willfully took an official motion prone to profit him in consequence of buying a monetary curiosity in a “property, transaction or enterprise,” or in consequence of a “speculation or wager” which he made or triggered another person to make associated to an official motion.

Other witnesses who appeared through the trial embody:

  • Binstock, government director of the North Dakota Ethics Commission

  • Bjornson, director of Legislative Council

  • John Boyle, director of the Facility Management Division for the Office of Management and Budget 

  • Josh Gallion, state auditor

  • Grabowska, director of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation

  • Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, chair of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee

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

The misdemeanor charge in opposition to Dockter is predicated 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 most sentence for somebody convicted of a Class A misdemeanor in North Dakota is as much as one yr in jail and as much as a $3,000 fantastic, or each.

This story was up to date at 6:45 p.m. Friday. It is a creating story and will likely be up to date once more.

The publish Jury finds Rep. Dockter guilty of misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge appeared first on North Dakota Monitor.

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