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Sarah Vogel says North Dakota attorney general didn’t see documents on Bill Gates land deal

Former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel, an attorney, advocate and author, said she thinks North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley or lawyers in his department should have acquired a copy of a trust for the benefit of billionaire Bill Gates, and lease-back agreements with Campbell Farms of Grafton, North Dakota, before “deeming” the deal legal.

A brown-haired woman in red glasses and a yellow top smiles during an interview.
Former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel, an attorney, advocate and author, said she thinks North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley or lawyers in his department should have acquired a copy of a trust for the benefit of billionaire Bill Gates, and lease-back agreements with Campbell Farms of Grafton, North Dakota, before “deeming” the deal legal. Photo taken June 6, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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FARGO — “A very shallow and insufficient investigation” is how Sarah Vogel, a former North Dakota agriculture commissioner and former assistant attorney general, characterizes the North Dakota Attorney General's inquiry into a land deal between a prominent North Dakota farm and a trust benefiting billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Vogel came to that conclusion after reading documents from the North Dakota Attorney General’s office after the agency went “inactive” on its inquiry about a land deal between Campbell Farms and Red River Trust .

In the case of the Campbell/Gates transaction, Vogel says North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley and his department appear to have simply “deemed” the sale to comply with the law with little inquiry. The Campbell Farms, a potato farm based at Grafton, North Dakota, sold more than 2,000 acres to Red River Trust, whose lawyer said the sole beneficiary is Gates.

Drew Wrigley, who was appointed attorney general on Feb. 8, after the unexpected death of long-time Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, said he is becoming more familiar with the statute’s enforcement. Wrigley, whose term is up for election on Nov. 8, referred questions to Matt Sagsveen, the department’s solicitor general since 2017, who supervises the management portfolio for the state’s anti-corporate farming statutes. He has been with the department about a decade.

Unusual case

Sagsveen acknowledged correspondence regarding the case was handled primarily by Kerrie Helm, a senior paralegal in the department, who manages the day-to-day activities of the anti-corporate farming law. But he said he “talked about” the case with Helm, even though his signature doesn’t appear as signing off.

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He acknowledged it as “not the usual case” for the statue, because it involves a trust. He said the department’s inquiry has gone “inactive” but said it could be re-activated if more information should arise. So far, it hasn’t.

The law allows trusts “for the benefit of an individual or class of individuals within the degrees of kinship” specified in the law. Sagsveen said the attorney general’s office advises county recorders to report land purchases by corporations and limited liability companies but currently may not advise them to report activities by trusts, per se.

County recorders are supposed to provide copies of “instruments” — deeds — for corporations or limited liability companies, but so far not for trusts, according to the law.

Trusts for the benefit of an individual can lease out land for agricultural purposes. On that point, the attorney general’s office took the word of Matthew L. Thompson, a lawyer of the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo, North Dakota, (not related to Sarah Vogel) representing the trust in the state.

Sagsveen explained that when a lawyer responds to an official department inquiry, he “generally takes them at their word unless there is a reason to believe otherwise.”

Sarah’s curiosity

Sarah Vogel likes to see things in black-and-white. She is one of North Dakota’s most high-profile agricultural lawyers. She gained national notoriety in the 1980s as lead attorney in Coleman v. Block , a national class action suit in the 1980s that stopped farm foreclosures by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Home Administration and has written a memoir book about the case . Vogel went on to be an assistant North Dakota attorney general, was elected to two terms as North Dakota agriculture commissioner, and continued in her own practice which participated in national cases. Her grandfather was prominent in the Nonpartisan League, who birthed the anti-corporate farming law in the 1930s. Vogel said the Campbell/Gates sale may or may not be legal, but she thinks it would be impossible to determine that with the documents the attorney general’s office has on the topic.

After reading articles in Agweek about the transaction, Vogel, “out of curiosity,” filed an open records request from the agency on July 1. Initially, Vogel got 14 pages of information. But she said that “didn’t look complete” and she asked for more, and received nine more pages — a total of 23 pages.

“The fascinating thing is that the ‘trust’ that has purchased the land — there’s no record of who is in charge of that trust and who is the beneficiary of that trust,” she said.

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Thompson responded to the attorney general’s office as a local lawyer representing the trust and said the sole beneficiary of the trust is Bill Gates.

“But the attorney general didn’t even ask for a copy of the trust, which strikes me as being a very, very incomplete investigation,” Vogel said. “Why take the word of an attorney if you’re a prosecutor for North Dakota farming law. You’d want to see the actual document, but it’s not there.”

She still wonders exactly what is “Gates’ interest.”

“Is it a corporation that gets benefits? Are there additional entities that get benefits, or is it Gates as an individual?” she said. “We don’t even know if the attorney was hired that day” or has been a “long-time attorney for Bill Gates.”

“My personal feeling is that Bill Gates’ attorneys don’t live in Fargo, North Dakota,” she said.

How many deals?

“This is just one transaction,” she said. “We don’t know how many others are out there (with the trust). It strikes me that the anti-corporate farming law is important enough that it deserves more than the attention of a paralegal in the attorney general’s office. There’s no reference of a lawyer signing off on this — either an assistant attorney general, or Mr. Wrigley himself — none,” she said.

When the land in the Campbell-Gates deal was transferred in November 2021, there wasn’t a county recorder’s report from either Pembina or Walsh counties.

She noted that an attorney general's letter to elected county recorders instructed them to report corporations or limited liability company purchases of land, but did not tell them to report trusts.

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Sagsveen acknowledged that the attorney general’s office doesn’t ask about trusts, even though they are part of the statutes.

“There can be trusts that actually own land, and that would be problematic, but if it’s a trust for the benefit of an individual then possibly not,” Vogel said. These are likely “fairly common,” she said, but in those cases the deeds are in the name of the landowner, not in the name of the lender or farm management company acting as trustee.

“We just don’t know,” in the Gates/Campbell case, she said. “I think the attorney general’s office should do a better job.”

‘Fictitious name’

Separately, Vogel is also intrigued that the Campbell brothers in February 2022 registered with the Secretary of State what’s known as a “fictitious” general partnership named “Red River Trust,” with their farm headquarters as its address. Red River Trust is the same name as the Washington state-based trust benefiting Gates.

She noted that Thompson said the Gates-related Red River Trust knew nothing about this. Meanwhile, Sagsveen said that Helm had contacted the Secretary of State’s office about the transaction.

Meanwhile, the Campbells sought and received “clearance” from the Department of Financial Institutions, to ensure that “nobody would be misled into thinking they were a ‘bank trust department,’ or something like that.” The Campbells so far have not responded to Agweek’s inquiries for comment.

“I understand a lot of people are upset, who have called into the agriculture department and elsewhere about this purchase,” Vogel said. “I think it deserves airing, openness and a thorough investigation.”

She said the attorney general’s office under Stenhjem seemed to give “a total blind eye” to a corporation buying a 9,000-acre ranch in 2016 next to Standing Rock Indian Reservation when the Dakota Access Pipeline went through.

“They were given a pass on that,” she said. She said she is concerned about corporations buying ranch land in western North Dakota as a defensive measure in the case of spills.

“In other states, such as Texas and Oklahoma, companies are finding it cheaper just to buy the ranch than clean up the mess,” she said.

Vogel said it’s significant that North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law was adopted by an initiated measure in the 1930s.

“The people of North Dakota put that law in,” she said, adding that it has been upheld by the state and federal courts. It has many “good and rational exemptions,” she said, but added it is “part of the very fabric of North Dakota.”

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