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ND officials mum after consulting with attorneys about losing Heritage Center lawsuit

North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman, right, reads a jury verdict against the state while Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, right, and Historical Society Director Claudia Berg, center, wait for a State Historical Board meeting to start Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 in Bismarck. John Hageman / Forum News Service1 / 2
The North Dakota Heritage Center State Museum is seen July 14, 2016, on the Capitol grounds in Bismarck.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

BISMARCK—The head of the State Historical Society of North Dakota declined to say Thursday, Nov. 16, whether the agency planned to appeal a jury verdict awarding almost $1.4 million to the firm that built the Heritage Center expansion.

But the Historical Society may not have the funding to pay that sum.

The State Historical Board met behind closed doors to consult with attorneys the day after a Bismarck jury said the agency breached its contract with Comstock Construction by failing to pay the balance of the contract and for extra work. Comstock, based in Wahpeton, N.D., was the general contractor for the museum's recent $51.7 million, 97,000-square-foot expansion.

Historical Society Director Claudia Berg declined to comment after the meeting when asked whether they would appeal the verdict.

"We've consulted with our attorney and that's all that needs to be said at this point," Secretary of State Al Jaeger, a board member, said at the end of the meeting.

The board cited the attorney consultation exemption from the state's opening meeting law in closing the meeting to the public.

Allen Knudson, a budget analyst and auditor with the state Legislative Council, said the Historical Society has about $386,000 that it was retaining to pay the project's final costs.

"They are going to be about $1 million short," he said.

Berg declined to say whether the agency has enough money to pay the $1.4 million verdict, but she said the retainage—the portion of a contractor's payment that's withheld until work is complete—"is all taken care of."

Earlier this year, lawmakers set aside $50,000 in litigation expenses for the State Historical Society.

The Legislature budgeted $39.7 million in state general funds for the project in 2009, along with $12 million in federal or special funds to be raised by the Historical Society. The museum held a grand opening for the expansion in November 2014, and Comstock filed its lawsuit against the state in March 2016.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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