As Nicholas James Morgan-Derosier, a landscaper accused of possessing child pornography, sat in a North Dakota jail in August 2021, he texted with people on the outside. Among them: one of the most powerful senators in the North Dakota legislature, according to jail records obtained by the news outlet Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.
All told, state Sen. Ray Holmberg (R) and Morgan-Derosier exchanged 72 text messages as Morgan-Derosier was being held on the child pornography charges, the Forum reported — although it remains unclear exactly what they communicated about.
Now Holmberg, the state’s longest-serving senator, who was first elected more than four decades ago, has announced his resignation.
“Recent news stories have become a distraction for the important work of the legislative assembly during its interim meetings,” Holmberg said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I want to do what I can, within my power, to lessen such distractions.”
He said he would step down June 1.
Holmberg declined to comment further. His lawyer, Mark Friese, did not respond to a request for comment. Friese told the Associated Press that Holmberg has not been charged with any crimes and does not expect that he will be.
Since first being elected in 1976, Holmberg has become one of the most powerful lawmakers in North Dakota, serving as the chairman of several top committees, the Forum reported. In March, Holmberg announced he would retire once his term ended in November, citing unspecified “medical issues” that “do not afford me the cognitive ability to accurately perform the work required and expected of a senator” representing Grand Forks in eastern North Dakota.
About a month later, the Forum reported that on Aug. 23, 2021, Holmberg and Morgan-Derosier exchanged 65 text messages in the span of about two hours as Morgan-Derosier was in jail facing 10 counts of possessing child pornography. The next evening, the men exchanged an additional seven texts. The Forum based the report on jail records it obtained through a public records request. The records did not detail the contents of the messages.
Morgan-Derosier used a jail messaging service to communicate with Holmberg, the Forum reported.
In response, Holmberg told the news outlet that he did not know Morgan-Derosier was in jail at the time of the text exchange. The senator said he was communicating with Morgan-Derosier about “a variety of things,” including work Morgan-Derosier had been doing on his patio for more than a year. The pair had known each other for a couple of years, Holmberg added, and he had invited Morgan-Derosier to his house “a few times” for drinks and coffee.
“We never went out to dinner at restaurants,” Holmberg told the Forum. “But I don’t want to say much more.”
Holmberg first told the Forum that he had known about the child pornography charges against Morgan-Derosier, which were first filed in state court in March 2021, according to the Grand Forks Herald. Then Holmberg denied knowing about the charges in a subsequent interview with the Forum.
In mid-December, Morgan-Derosier was charged in federal court with child pornography offenses and traveling with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct. In September 2020, investigators alleged they had discovered thousands of child pornography photos and videos during a search of Morgan-Derosier’s home. In March 2020, Morgan-Derosier had taken two boys from Minnesota to Grand Forks without permission from their parents, according to an affidavit.
A lawyer representing Morgan-Derosier did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Tuesday. The state child pornography charges against Morgan-Derosier were dismissed as the federal case proceeded, the Forum reported.
Less than a week after the Forum published its report about the text exchanges, Holmberg stepped down as chair of the Legislative Management, a powerful committee that decides senators’ assignments.
Now, there is bipartisan support for his resignation.
Without elaborating, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement that he approved of Holmberg’s stepping down, the AP reported.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R) said he had spoken with Holmberg, who felt it was in his “best interest” to resign, according to the AP. He added that Holmberg has not been charged with a crime and is “being tried and sentenced in the media,” the Forum reported.
Pat Hart, the chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party, called Holmberg’s resignation “the only decision under the circumstances,” the Forum reported.
“North Dakotans need legislators they can put their full faith in to carry out their duties,” Hart said. “This is a sad situation, and one that shouldn’t be hanging over our state legislature.”