School boards group backs out of teacher exchange program amid ex-North Dakota lawmaker's charges

A North Dakota school boards organization has returned over $140,000 to the state and ended its role in a teacher exchange program months after an indictment was unsealed against a former state lawmaker, who traveled to Europe on the state funds and later was accused of traveling to Prague with the intent of paying for sex with a minor.

The North Dakota School Boards Association’s director said the group had been discussing ending its involvement with the Germany-based Global Bridges program before former Republican state senator Ray Holmberg’s indictment, and though his case was not the driver, “everything that transpired perhaps just hastened that discussion.”

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“We just were working to align our association’s activities with our mission, and the timing was just what it was,” Executive Director Alexis Baxley told The Associated Press.

The state Ethics Commission announced the funds’ return on Tuesday. In January, the association’s board of directors voted to end its role as the fiscal agent for the program and to return the remaining $142,000 to the state Department of Public Instruction, according to a letter the department provided to the AP.

In a statement, the ethics panel said the association returned the money on its own without prompting by the department, the commission or anyone else. The Legislature approved money for the program from 2007 to 2017 in the department’s budget, which flowed as “pass-through grants” to the association, which was a “reimbursement and bookkeeping entity” for the funds, the ethics panel said.

The association reached an informal resolution as to a complaint against it about the program, the ethics panel said. Under that resolution, the association agreed to end any future involvement with the Global Bridges program. The complaint is closed. State law makes ethics complaints confidential.

It’s unclear whether Holmberg’s alleged misconduct occurred during a Global Bridges trip. Travel records from the association show he took trips in 2011, 2018 and 2019 to Prague, a city named in the indictment, and other cities in Europe. The date of June 24, 2011, is listed in the indictment and on a receipt for Holmberg for a departure to Prague and other cities.

Former Association Executive Director Jon Martinson said Holmberg “cast a huge shadow” over the state’s relationship through the association with Global Bridges.

“The trips would continue and the (association) wouldn’t have given back the money and none of this attention would have occurred had Ray Holmberg not done what he is alleged to have done in Prague,” said Martinson, who added he is still the Global Bridges program director. The association did not consult with him about deciding to return the money, he said.

Nine people, including seven lawmakers, went on North Dakota’s last Global Bridges trip, in July 2023 to Berlin and surrounding cities such as Potsdam, Martinson said. He touted the value of the program for bringing together teachers and legislators with top experts in education, business and politics.

Democratic state Sen. Tim Mathern, who served over 35 years with Holmberg, said he thinks the program’s situation “just got so complicated in terms of so many people looking into the matter.”

“It’s really not just Sen. Holmberg. There might be other issues that come up as people inquire even further, and they would just as soon, I would think, want to get out of that sort of scrutiny and difficulty,” said Mathern, who lauded the Ethics Commission for the process “at least to look at some of these things closer.”

Holmberg, 80, served in the North Dakota Senate from 1976 to 2022. In early 2022, he announced his intent not to seek reelection but weeks later he resigned after The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reported he had exchanged dozens of text messages with a man in jail for child sexual abuse images.

Holmberg was one of the most powerful members of the Legislature, chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee for many years. He also chaired the Legislative Management, which handles the Legislature’s business between biennial sessions. The latter role allowed him to approve his own travel.

Records obtained by the AP show that Holmberg took dozens of trips throughout the U.S. and to other countries since 1999. Destinations included cities in more than 30 states as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and Norway.

Holmberg also is charged with receipt and attempted receipt of child sexual abuse material. His trial is scheduled for September in Fargo.

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