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Hoeven, Heitkamp want FBI agents in Williston

Hoeven, Heitkamp want FBI agents in Williston

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The shortest route from Sidney, Mont., to Williston is 45.5 miles. Head northwest on Highway 200 to the state line, go north on Highway 58, go northwest again on Highway 1804, then take U.S. Highway 2 into Williston. The trip, Google Maps estimates, will take almost an hour.

But that distance is too far for North Dakota’s U.S. senators, who say FBI agents should be in Williston rather than its neighbor to the southwest.

In a joint letter to FBI director James Comey and Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp requested that FBI agents with the duty of covering western North Dakota be placed in Williston.

“Williston sits in the heart of the oil patch and provides your agents the most optimal operating location to both carry out their duties and to assist state, tribal, county, and local law enforcement agencies in western North Dakota as needed,” the letter said.

Kyle Loven, a spokesman for the FBI’s Minneapolis division, which covers North Dakota, said there is a need for a permanent resident agency in western North Dakota. There currently are two agents located in Sidney assigned to the oil patch: one assigned there from the Salt Lake City division of the FBI, which covers Montana, and one assigned there from the Minneapolis division.

The letter said agents were supposed to be located in Williston but were moved temporarily to Sidney due to space constraints in Williston.

“We have been advised that permanent space has now been secured in Williston. We therefore respectfully request that these agents be moved into this space at the earliest possible date,” the letter said.

Ryan Bernstein, chief of staff for Hoeven, said the senators felt that it was important for them to weigh in on whether to permanently place an officer in Williston or in Sidney in the future and to raise awareness about the continuing needs of law enforcement in western North Dakota.

Abbie McDonough, a spokeswoman for Heitkamp, said the letter, sent Dec. 19, also is another step in shoring up law enforcement resources in North Dakota. Heitkamp in July brought Kerlikowske to western North Dakota. Since his visit, his office has designated Williams County as a high-intensity drug trafficking area, which opens up the county for additional resources for fighting drug trafficking.

“This is an ongoing issue that the senator is continuing to address,” McDonough said.

Loven said increasing population and increasing numbers of crimes show the need for agents in western North Dakota.

“I think those numbers and statistics would support our wanting and needing a permanent presence,” he said. “We in Minneapolis, we simply cannot make this decision unilaterally.”

He said the placement of the agents in Sidney came down to where the FBI could find space for them. Where a permanent agency would be set up remains to be decided.

“(The Minneapolis division) would prefer that we have a permanent resident agency set up somewhere in western North Dakota,” Loven said.

The letter from the senators also indicated that the FBI’s agents in North Dakota were based in Fargo. However, there also are agents in offices in Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot. Bernstein said the senators are aware of the FBI’s presence in the rest of the state.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said there are five FBI agents in Minot, four in Bismarck, two in Grand Forks and two or three in Fargo. The numbers in Bismarck and Minot have increased in recent years, he said, noting that a few years ago there was only one agent in Minot. The agent from the Minneapolis division who now is in Sidney was reassigned to the oil field duty from the Grand Forks office, Purdon said.

“These agencies have been staffed up,” Purdon said.

“Obviously, with the influx of workers and individuals into the oil patch, that has necessitated our numbers increasing as well,” Loven said.

While Purdon declined comment on the content of the senators’ letter, he said he is pleased with the increased staffing of federal law enforcement agencies in North Dakota.

In addition to a larger number of FBI agents in the state, several other agencies also have bolstered their presence in North Dakota. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives opened a Bismarck office a year ago and assigned two agents to the oil patch: one in Bismarck and one in Bottineau. Purdon said the Border Patrol also has cooperated and assisted with investigations within the state.

“These are major developments from our perspective,” Purdon said.

Bernstein said the senators will continue to keep in contact with Purdon and others in law enforcement to find out if more resources are necessary.

Purdon said that the “robust federal response” to law enforcement needs in western North Dakota explains, in large part, a more than twofold increase in caseload for the attorneys in his office to handle. There were 125 cases filed in 2009, compared to 250 in 2012. Purdon said his office is on pace to open more than 300 cases in 2013.

The senators’ letter also briefly addressed the workload in Purdon’s office.

“Our federal law enforcement resources in North Dakota are already stretched thin,” the letter said. “We certainly understand the budget constraints that the federal government is under, however our U.S. Attorney’s office is saddled with an ever expanding caseload and due to the current budget sequestration, the office is unable to hire new assistant attorneys to handle this increase. “

Reach Jenny Michael at 701-250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.

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