BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota's governor, top law officer and military leader all said Wednesday they were unaware that a private security firm hired by the developer of the disputed Dakota Access oil pipeline has been operating illegally in the state without a license.
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North Dakota's Private Investigative and Security Board first notified TigerSwan in September it was unlicensed, and in December rejected its application, citing the alleged criminal history of the company's president.
Despite that, TigerSwan remained an integral part of the pipeline developer's security operation and assisted law officers. Internal company documents published by online news outlet The Intercept last month make references to planning and communication with law enforcement, the placing of a company liaison in the law enforcement joint operations center, and a meeting with the state attorney general's office's Bureau of Criminal Investigation "regarding video and still photo evidence collected for prosecution."
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, the state's top law enforcement officer, said he did not "recall being made aware" of TigerSwan's involvement or lack of a license.
"Certainly, If I had known they were operating, I would have advised them to comply with the law," he said.
The regulatory board's attorneys, Monte Rogneby and Justin Hagel, were hired by Stenehjem's office. Rogneby said neither the board nor the attorneys had "communications" with Gov. Doug Burgum, who inherited the pipeline protest issue when he became governor in December.
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"I can't comment on who else the board has discussed this with because it's an ongoing investigation," Rogneby said.
Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for Gov. Doug Burgum, said the governor-appointed regulatory board was not obligated under state law to inform Burgum of problems with the private security company.
"The governor had no knowledge or communication with the board on this issue," she said.
The regulatory board on Tuesday asked a state judge to stop TigerSwan's armed workers from continuing to monitor the pipeline system and requested administrative fines be levied against the company and its president, James Reese, for operating without a license, a misdemeanor carrying a potential sentence of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.
TigerSwan didn't answer phone calls or respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday. Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners confirmed that it uses TigerSwan for security but declined to comment further.
The pipeline this month began moving oil from western North Dakota to a distribution point in Illinois where it can be shipped to the Gulf Coast, though American Indian tribes who fear environmental harm continue to fight in court. The pipeline was delayed months by the legal battle and protests in southern North Dakota that resulted in 761 arrests between August and February.
The regulatory board alleges in court documents that TigerSwan employees with semi-automatic rifles and handguns protected workers and equipment at construction sites, conducted intelligence on protesters including placing or trying to place undercover agents within the protest groups, and even monitored traffic on a state highway. The board also says TigerSwan is still providing round-the-clock security along the pipeline in the state.
According to the board, it notified TigerSwan in September that the company wasn't properly licensed, and the company denied conducting private security in the state but at the same time applied for a license. The board denied the request in December, citing in court documents Reese's alleged criminal history without specifying the offenses. The board said Reese told the group he had never been convicted of a crime. A month later, the board rejected the application again, saying it was incomplete.
Rogneby, an attorney for the board, said "multiple private security companies" were hired by the company during the protest and that some were properly licensed and others are "still under investigation." He would not elaborate.
North Dakota officials say the state incurred nearly $40 million in law enforcement costs resulting from the protests. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of opponents camped in southern North Dakota, often clashing with police and National Guard soldiers. The pipeline company's private security personnel and their vehicles were often visible among the uniformed officers and military personnel.
Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, the leader of the state's National Guard, said he did not know until Wednesday that TigerSwan was operating illegally.
"The National Guard had absolutely no interaction with them," said Dohrmann, whose troops spent months monitoring the protest and helped law enforcement remove protesters from the site in south-central North Dakota in February.
"If there was any interaction between our folks and them, it was only through casual conversation," Dohrmann said. "Through official Guard channels, there was no coordination."
TigerSwan was founded by retired military special forces members. Internal company documents indicate that employees conducted an aggressive, multifaceted operation against pipeline protesters that included maintaining a close working relationship with public law enforcement.
"When you have an organization like TigerSwan come in and start to influence decisions by law enforcement and even leadership in the state, you have to step back and say, where is the safety, where is the justice?" Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, who spearheaded the law enforcement response to the protests, didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.
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