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

A North Dakota school board organization has returned more than $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 accused of traveling to Europe on state funds and then to Prague with the intent of paying for sex with a minor.

A director for the North Dakota School Boards Association said the association had been considering ending its involvement with the Germany-based Global Bridges program even before former Republican state Sen. Ray Holmberg’s indictment, but that Holmberg’s indictment was not the catalyst, “but everything that’s happened may have just accelerated that discussion.”

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“We’ve been working to align our activities with our mission and the timing was right,” Executive Director Alexis Baxley told The Associated Press.

The state Ethics Commission announced the return of the funds on Tuesday, and in January the association’s board of directors voted to end its role as the program’s fiscal agent and return the remaining $142,000 to the state Education Department, according to a letter provided to The Associated Press by the state Education Department.

North Dakota Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg speaks on the Senate floor of the State Capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota, in November 2021. North Dakota’s school board system has returned more than $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 accused of traveling to Europe with state funds and later traveling to Prague with the intent of paying for sex acts with minors. (Mike McCleary/Bismarck Tribune via The Associated Press)

The ethics commission said in a statement that the association returned the funds voluntarily, without prompting from the police, the commission or anyone else. The state Legislature approved funding for the program in police budgets from 2007 to 2017, and the money flowed to the association as a “pass-through grant,” and the association was the “repaying and bookkeeping entity” for the funds, the ethics commission said.

According to the ethics committee, the association reached an informal resolution of the complaints about the program. Under that resolution, the association agreed to have no further involvement with the Global Bridge program. The complaint has been resolved. State law requires that ethics complaints be kept confidential.

It is unclear whether Holmberg’s misconduct occurred during Global Bridges trips. The organization’s travel records show he traveled to Prague and other European cities listed in the indictment in 2011, 2018 and 2019. The June 24, 2011 date appears in the indictment and on receipts for Holmberg’s departures to Prague and other cities.

John Martinson, the association’s former executive director, said Holmberg “cast a huge shadow over” relations with the state through his affiliation with Global Bridges.

“If Ray Holmberg had not engaged in the actions he allegedly took in Prague, the trip would have gone ahead, (the organization) would not have refunded the money and this attention would not have come,” Martinson said, adding that he remains Global Bridges’ program director. Martinson said the organization did not consult with him in deciding to refund the money.

Martinson said North Dakota’s final Global Bridges tour included nine members, including seven lawmakers, who visited surrounding cities such as Berlin and Potsdam in July 2023. He emphasized the value of the program, which connects teachers and lawmakers with top experts in education, business and politics.

Democratic state Sen. Tim Mathern, who served under Holmberg for more than 35 years, said he believes the program’s situation has “gotten very complicated in that a lot of people are looking into this.”

“This isn’t just about Senator Holmberg. As people look more closely, other issues may come up, and I think they’ll want to avoid that scrutiny and hardship,” Matherne said, praising the ethics committee’s process for “looking more closely at least at some of these issues.”

Holmberg, 80, served as a North Dakota state senator from 1976 to 2022. He announced in early 2022 that he would not seek reelection, but resigned weeks later after the Fargo-Moorhead Forum reported that he had exchanged dozens of text messages of child sexual abuse images with a man in prison.

Holmberg was one of the most influential members of Congress, having served for many years as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and as chairman of the Legislative Management Committee, which handles the business of Congress between two-year sessions, the latter role allowing him to approve his own travel.

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Records obtained by The Associated Press show Holmberg has made dozens of trips within the United States and abroad since 1999, including to cities in more than 30 states as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and Norway.

Holmberg is also charged with receiving and attempting to receive child sexual abuse material. His trial is scheduled for September in Fargo.