BISMARCK - The North Dakota state auditor said Wednesday, May 24, there are no plans for a performance audit of the state's oil and gas regulator after a Bismarck attorney alleged the office improperly deleted thousands of emails.

In a May 8 letter to a Bismarck Tribune reporter, Derrick Braaten, a partner in the Baumstark Braaten law firm, summarized the results of a large open records request to the Oil and Gas Division in the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. He said division and management and staff tried to "permanently delete" 38,700 emails over a two-week period last year.

"The attempted destruction of these emails is deeply concerning to us," Braaten wrote in the letter, which he provided to Forum News Service this week. "It is also a Class C felony."

Braaten's firm represents North Dakota landowners with oil and gas interests who could be affected if any documents were destroyed, he wrote.

Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources, said emails are routinely deleted according to a state retention policy.

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"Emails are deleted by every state agency every single day. However, the information within them that's relevant to this office is maintained," she said. "Just because it's getting deleted, does not mean anything illegal happened and does not mean it wasn't retained somewhere."

Braaten also provided hand-written notes from an Oil and Gas Division staff meeting from last year that shows DMR Director Lynn Helms suggested that staff "remove unnecessary emails." Ritter said that conversation was about being prudent with server space.

"It was all in that context of being good stewards of public records," she said.

That staff meeting came a day before two candidates for North Dakota governor at the time, Democrat Marvin Nelson and Republican Paul Sorum, held a joint press conference and cited a tip that Oil and Gas employees were ordered to destroy public records, an allegation Ritter disputed. The two candidates called for a performance audit of the division.

In an email to Gov. Doug Burgum's office this month, Sorum said the press conference was "an attempt to undermine Wayne Stenehjem's primary campaign" against Burgum. As attorney general, Stenehjem is a member of the Industrial Commission, which oversees the Department of Mineral Resources.

Nelson, a state representative from Rolla and a member of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, is still hopeful for a performance audit based on news of the deleted emails and other issues he sees with production figures. He said undermining Stenehjem's campaign wasn't his motivation for participating in the press conference.

"We're dealing with a department that's responsible for overseeing billions of dollars," Nelson said.

State Auditor Josh Gallion said Wednesday there are no specific plans for a performance audit for now, although he expects the issue to be raised in a future meeting of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee.

"That's a discussion that we would be more than willing to have with (the committee)," Ritter said.