The October surprise in North Dakota governor’s race: Behind the report & the petition

I must admit I didn’t expect an October surprise in the North Dakota governor’s race, especially a bi-partisan one uniting Tea Partiers and Democrats against a sitting Republican governor. I covered the governor’s race in mid-October for The Drill, a western North Dakota publication owned by Forum Communications and run out of the offices of The Dickinson Press. For my article, I focused on the top two candidates with the most active campaigns – Gov. Dalrymple and Democrat Ryan Taylor.

I was aware there were two other candidates in the race: Paul Sorum, who is running as an independent after losing the Republican nomination to Dalrymple; and Roland Riemers, a Libertarian who as a gubernatorial candidate in 2004 received 1.35 percent of the vote.

After The Drill hit the streets across western North Dakota on Oct. 24, I received an email from Nikki McAlpin who complained that Sorum was not covered in the article and suggested I rectify that by writing another article for the next edition of The Drill. I had just put the Oct. 31 edition of The Drill to bed the evening of Oct. 24 (due to our production schedule, we publish a week ahead of time), so there would be no opportunity for the Sorum campaign to respond with a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece before the election either, because the next issue of The Drill we were working on wouldn’t come out until the day after the election.

McAlpin first responded to my email by attacking the “most active campaign” part of my response with the following statement:  “The most ‘active’ campaigns?  No, not really.  Only the ones who bought out the media.”  At about the same time the morning of Oct. 25, I received another email, anonymously, from, but the initials NM appeared in my email inbox’s title line as well. NM — hmmmm, Nikki McAlpin.

It was a news tip; attached was The Report with the provocative title: “Political Campaign Money from ‘Big Oil,’ Governor Jack Dalrymple, and North Dakota’s Class C Felony Bribery Statute” with David C. Thompson and Erik A. Escarraman listed as co-authors. The report contained more footnotes then I’ve seen since grad school (45 of them). I knew I would have to make time to read it, but I didn’t pounce on it since impending deadlines consumed my immediate attention.

After lunch (after I’d had a few hours to stew on it), I read the whole report with the daunting footnotes, and decided to track down the document’s author, which was easy enough. I ended up interviewing Thompson, a Grand Forks attorney, for about 45 minutes, who mentioned I was the first North Dakota reporter to talk to him. Hard to believe, since the report I had received as a PDF was dated Oct. 8, and it was now Oct. 25. When his receptionist transferred me to Thompson, he mentioned he had just gotten off the line with The Washington Post. Before I moved back to North Dakota, that might have impressed me more it did now. (The Bakken seems to be flooded with east coast & west coast reporters, which reminds me of a joke I read in an editorial by The Dickinson Press’ Harvey Brock: How do you know you’re having an oil boom? Answer: When you don’t need USA Today or the Los Angeles Times to tell you you’re having one.)

I asked Thompson how he came to do the heavily-footnoted report; he said he was at a political event last July where the topic of campaign contributions were being discussed. He said someone came up to him and gave him “a tip” about the Dalrymple campaign contribution issue. Thompson describes himself as a Democrat, but said his decision to write the report was not connected to any campaign. When asked why he would devote much time, effort and money to producing a report that obviously took months to complete, Thompson answered that he often does pro-bono work, and he didn’t view this report any differently. Thompson also mentioned that a petition was circulating in Dunn County and that someone might do a citizen petition to try to get the matter before North Dakota courts, since the scuttlebutt was that local officials might drag their feet on it.

To perhaps underscore that his report wasn’t politically motivated, Thompson mentioned he only released The Report online, and hadn’t sent it to any major media outlets in the state.

While talking with Thompson, I mentioned I didn’t plan on writing an article about it before the election. The next edition of The Drill had already gone to bed, as I mentioned above, and the next one wouldn’t come out until the day after the election. That didn’t seem to matter to Thompson; he just kept talking away.

Anyway, I had forgotten that on Friday, Oct. 26, Ryan Taylor was scheduled to come to Dickinson. Late in the day, I decided to drive down to the local Ramada, where he would be speaking and ask him if he had heard of The Report. I ran into Taylor in the lobby of the Ramada minutes before he was to speak. I asked him if he’d heard about The Report and if I could talk to him when he had time after his speaking engagement. He said sure and said that many of the issues The Report brings to light had been on his campaign’s website since July.

I looked it up – here’s the excerpt from Taylor’s online “White Paper on Ethics” – “Abstention from Campaign Contributions — As Governor, I will not accept any campaign contributions from officers of companies who have matters before the Industrial Commission. This is to ensure that I, and my administration, remain impartial when making the decisions that affect North Dakotans.”

After later interviewing Taylor and Gov. Dalrymple’s campaign about the report, I ended up filing a 15-inch article for The Dickinson Press for Saturday’s Oct. 27 edition. I normally don’t write for the daily, but Taylor’s presence in town right after I’d received and read The Report and spoken to Thompson seemed to line up the stars, so to speak.

Now, a week later, the Dunn County petition has been filed in district court and the accusations are flying from all political directions – an October surprise indeed. To see The Report, click here.

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