In 2016, thousands of protesters convened in North Dakota in the vicinity of Bismarck and Mandan to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in that area. I do not write this post as a piece of advocacy for or against this project. Rather, I write about this from the perspective of a private citizen of the state of Minnesota with ties to North Dakota (I am a graduate of the University of North Dakota School of Law '03) who has done a lot of criminal defense work.
I came across the podcast "A Mexican Crossing Lines - Scandalous Accusations" that discusses vast sums of money that was raised by the non-profit "The Freshet Collective" and raises questions about what happened to all of this money. Specifically, on this podcast, an activist named Duke Gomez-Schempp claimed publicly that this organization was failing to pay its legal bills and was instead "getting everyone to plead guilty and keeping the money." Freshet was registered as a Minnesota Non-Profit Corporation on August 30, 2016. This Non-Profit appears to be closely affiliated with Attorney Tara Houska, who has ties to Honor the Earth, a Minnesota Non-Profit, and is a "Native American Adviser" to US Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders.
As a lawyer and a citizen, I expect money raised for a specific purpose to be used for that purpose. In this case, the pitch to people to donate was for legal defense of Dakota Pipeline protesters. I firmly believe that people accused of crimes - whatever the crimes may be - should be provided competent legal counsel. I did some research into this matter via publicly available sources and the laws that relate to non-profits in Minnesota. As a result of my research, I determined that there appears to be significant merit to the concerns raised by Mr. Gomez-Schempp. It appears that millions of dollars that was raised to pay for lawyers and assist with the defense of protesters charged with crimes was not spent for that purpose. The office that is responsible for regulation of non-profits in Minnesota is the Minnesota Attorney General. Last week, I wrote a letter to Keith Ellison summarizing my concerns.
In this letter, I ask Attorney General Ellison to investigate the Freshet Collective's use of the money it raised. This money should have been spent on lawyers for the accused. This money could have given some North Dakota lawyers some good money for fees and some solid representation in their criminal cases. I sent this letter last week to Attorney General Ellison via certified mail - return receipt requested. I have received the return receipt that confirms that the Minnesota Attorney General's Office has received this letter. The people from whom this money was raised, those to whom it was intended to benefit, responsible government authorities, the bench and bar of North Dakota, the public, and the media should be concerned about what happened to this money. As of the writing of this post I have not heard anything from Attorney General Ellison, but that is not surprising in that last week was the Thanksgiving Holiday. I will update this blog if I hear anything further. My email address is at the top of this blog.