Sen. Rich Wardner


State Sen. Oley Larsen isn't heeding the call of Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner to apologize and resign his Senate leadership position due to controversial Facebook posts about U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.

In a lengthy Facebook post on Wednesday, Larsen, R-Minot, said he was sorry for "spreading fake news" in posting a photo Sunday purported to be of Omar, D-Minn., "at a Al' Qaida training camp in Somalia." But he made it clear he wasn't apologizing to Omar herself.

The Associated Press in August fact-checked the photo circulating on social media, finding it was taken at a military training facility in Mogadishu in 1978, before Omar's birth.

Larsen later deleted the post but made a subsequent Facebook post calling Omar "a terrorist." He later removed the "terrorist" reference from that post.

"Moving forward, I will do my best to thoroughly vet the information I share online," Larsen wrote in his Wednesday post. "However, I want to be clear, this is by no means an apology to Ilhan Omar. Although there is no evidence that she has directly engaged in terrorist activity, there is ample evidence that she is grossly sympathetic to the cause of certain religious extremists."

"I was wrong to call her a terrorist and spread misinformation about her," he wrote.

Omar is a Muslim, Somali-born refugee elected to Congress in 2018 who has drawn criticism for her controversial comments about Israel.

Larsen's posts about her drew rebukes from the Muslim Advocates civil rights organization and Omar herself, who on Twitter called Larsen's posts "pure propaganda designed to stir up hate and violence coming from a GOP state rep."

Wardner, R-Dickinson, earlier this week called for Larsen to apologize and resign as interim president pro tempore. He called Larsen's Wednesday statement a step "in the right direction" but said the senator still should apologize and resign his pro tempore position.

"He made a first good step in that he said, 'I made a mistake,' so I think he needs to finish it off," Wardner told the Tribune on Wednesday.

He has spoken with Larsen, whom Wardner said "doesn't agree with my recommendations: do an apology and step down as president pro tempore."

"He indicated he doesn't think it's right," Wardner said.

Muslim Advocates issued a statement Wednesday citing Larsen's "weak non-apology" and urging North Dakotans to email state leaders to "echo" Wardner's call for Larsen to step down.

"A man this hostile to religious freedom and interfaith dialogue has no place holding a leadership position like this," special counsel Madihha Ahussain said. "Oley Larsen does not represent North Dakota’s values and he is unfit to serve as interim president pro tempore of the North Dakota Senate."

Wardner had told the Tribune earlier of the "possibility" or "consideration" of convening the Senate to strip Larsen of his interim title. He declined to comment further after having read Larsen's statement. 

"I would be saying things that might cause people to think that we're going to do something we may not," Wardner said. "I don't know. I need to talk to a few people before I make any decision on that."

The Senate in April voted to name Larsen as interim president pro tempore, to preside over the Senate during a special session in the lieutenant governor's absence.

Larsen's posts have "created a lot of controversy," said Wardner, who called his posts "a political difference of opinion" that "has nothing to do with racism."

However, "I've had people from all over the country call me, and they want him removed as a state senator," he said.

Wardner said it's up to District 3 voters to decide Larsen's fate as their state senator.

"He needs to be responsible to them. They are the ones that put him here. They are the ones that will make that decision," Wardner said.

As president pro tempore, Larsen sits on several boards, such as the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee, which in September approved Gov. Doug Burgum's display of North Dakota tribal flags in Memorial Hall of the state Capitol.

The president pro tempore also sits on a committee that names finalists for seats on the State Board of Higher Education. That committee might have to convene if current member Dan Traynor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate to a federal judgeship in North Dakota.

Larsen did not immediately return an email message seeking comment. The Tribune was unable to leave a phone message for him Wednesday as his voicemail inbox was full.

His Facebook and Twitter accounts have received a barrage of comments calling for his resignation from the Senate.

North Dakota's Legislature has no rules for lawmakers' use of social media, though eight other states have such policies.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.