The Forum requested all emails sent or received by North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani from Sept. 25, 2012, to March 25 that contained the words “Shirvani” or “chancellor.”

The Forum compared its own emails from Nov. 1, 2012, to March 25 with the emails the Legislative Council received during the same period.

Side-by-side review of request shows missing emails

The Forum newspaper has uncovered evidence of at least 50 emails that were deleted from North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani’s account, based on comparing results of two open records requests, and school officials confirmed Friday that tens of thousands of emails were somehow wiped out.

The newspaper compared the results of its own open records request for Bresciani’s emails, made in March, with those that the North Dakota Legislative Council received after a similar request in April and found that 53 emails were missing from the results of the council’s request.

Nearly all of the emails in the Legislative Council’s request were sent by Bresciani, with few incoming emails that would sit in an inbox, suggesting that at least part of the president’s inbox was deleted sometime after The Forum’s open records request was fulfilled in late April.

The missing emails, mostly innocuous replies to Bresciani from fellow school employees, are just a fraction of the 45,375 emails that were allegedly deleted from Bresciani’s account sometime in the two weeks leading up to the Legislative Council’s request for the president’s emails – a possible violation of the state’s open records law. The emails are now at the heart of a probe by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office.

After being asked about the 53 missing emails identified by the Forum, NDSU and North Dakota University System officials confirmed Friday that “a large number of emails” have been deleted. Bresciani and other university staff initially said they couldn’t verify whether any emails had been deleted from Bresciani’s account.

Whether the 45,375 emails were dumped on April 29 – the day the council submitted its request for Bresciani’s emails – or sometime in the two weeks prior is still unclear. Nor is it clear whether the emails were deleted inadvertently, on purpose or as a result of some systematic error.

In a joint statement, NDSU chief information officer Marc Wallman and University System CIO Lisa Feldner said they are still working to determine how the emails were deleted.

“At this time, evidence suggests that this was the result of an auto-purge function that was turned on during the month of April across many campuses,” the statement said.

Bresciani floated that possibility in a letter to students about the controversy earlier this week.

He also suggested his account may have been compromised by university system staff in a “personally directed and malicious” effort against him. But Wallman and Feldner said in the statement that the only outsiders who accessed the president’s account were fulfilling open records requests.

The emails aren’t gone forever. The school has access to an archive of the deleted emails, NDSU spokeswoman Laura McDaniel said Friday, and the school will turn over any information to the attorney general’s office upon request. She said Stenehjem’s office hasn’t asked NDSU for any information yet.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general declined to comment, other than to say they are looking into the allegation that NDSU violated the state’s open records law and will issue an opinion on the matter.

There’s no timeline for when that opinion will come down. If Stenehjem determines the emails were deleted to avoid public disclosure, he could refer the matter to a state’s attorney for consideration of criminal charges, including a felony for destroying public records.

NDSU has maintained from the outset that Bresciani didn’t delete any emails or direct anyone to do so.

What went missing

On April 29, the Legislative Council, on behalf of an unnamed legislator, requested emails from a number of officials and staff members in the world of North Dakota higher education, many of whom were believed to be tied to an effort to undermine then-University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.

When that request only turned up about 900 pages of emails from Bresciani’s account, the Legislative Council asked the University System – rather than NDSU, which had overseen the first data dump – to look into it, and whether any emails were deleted. That eventually triggered the disclosure that 45,375 emails had been deleted.

Nearly all of 53 emails the Forum identified as missing from the Legislative Council’s request were short replies to Bresciani.

For example, the council did not receive a Nov. 14 email from Shirvani’s assistant confirming that their meeting had been canceled. It also didn’t get the simple “Thx” a Pennsylvania university president sent after Bresciani congratulated him for getting a new job.

In each of those instances, the Council received Bresciani’s message but not another person’s reply.

The Legislative Council did receive emails Bresciani sent to others that expressed his disdain for Shirvani and some members of his staff. The Forum published excerpts from some of those emails in an April 28 story chronicling some of the behind-the-scenes conversations Bresciani and other North Dakota university presidents made about Shirvani.

Shirvani took over as chancellor on July 1, 2012. He was ousted June 3 after months of turmoil –including public criticism of his management style by some legislators and private complaints by some campus presidents, Bresciani being one of them.

Only four entire emails were missing from the council’s request altogether. That includes a Feb. 21 email to Bresciani and other university presidents from Pat Seaworth, former attorney for the North Dakota University System, in which he accused Shirvani of misleading others about policy changes in the State Board of Higher Education.

The Council eventually received that email from another part of its open records request that sought emails from Seaworth’s personal account to any email address in the North Dakota University System.