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Regional lawmakers react to Capitol chaos
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Chaos overtook the nation's capitol Wednesday afternoon after a mob waving Trump flags and wearing Make America Great Again hats stormed the Capitol complex. Lawmakers were forced to halt debate over disputed electoral votes, taking shelter instead. 

Congress ultimately returned to session and finalized its deliberations in a marathon session that went until nearly 3 a.m. CST. These deliberations affirmed the election of Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as Vice President.

Sen. Steve Daines released a statement right after the riot indicating that he would vote in favor of certifying the 2020 electoral vote after all, a departure from previous statements that he would vote in favor of a commission to review votes in states that Trump has disputed losing, a commission that could have potentially decided to set those state's votes aside.

“Today is a sad day for our country," Daines said. "The destruction and violence we saw at our Capitol today is an assault on our democracy, our Constitution and the rule of law, and must not be tolerated. As Americans, we believe in the right to peaceful protest. We must rise above the violence. We must stand together. We will not let today’s violence deter Congress from certifying the election. We must restore confidence in our electoral process. We must, and we will, have a peaceful and orderly transition of power.”

Daines's office further clarified that the Senator's decision to object to Arizona's electoral votes was never an attempt to overturn the election, but was meant to raise concerns on behalf of those Americans who lack confidence in the election process, and to drive reforms that would restore that confidence and trust in the process. That effort will continue, his staff said.

Daines is not the only legislator who decided to change course Wednesday night. Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler also reversed course when it was her turn at the podium once Congress reconvened.

"I fully intended to vote to reject electoral votes," she testified. "But I cannot now object to the certification of these electors."

Loeffler said that while the violence and lawlessness changed her vote, she still believes that Congress must turn its focus to protecting the integrity of American elections and restoring American faith.

"America is divided," she said. "But still the greatest country on earth. Upholding Democracy is the only path forward to preserving our Republic."

Others, meanwhile, said they would go forward with objections despite the situation, including Montana U.S. Representative Matt Rosendale.

“Today is an absolutely terrible day. I have always condemned and will continue to condemn political violence in all forms. It has no place in our country.

"However, I will not be intimidated by mob violence from the left or the right. I will oppose certification of electors from certain disputed states," he said. "These votes today were always about preserving and protecting the integrity of our election process, not any candidate. I will continue to work to ensure our elections are free and secure and every legal vote is counted and every fraudulent vote is rejected."

The chaos at the Capitol began late Wednesday afternoon of Jan. 6. A mob of people carrying Trump flags and wearing Make America Great Again hats pushed their way past security guards, after a pro-Trump rally. Lawmakers were forced to halt debate and take shelter instead, while people outside the building were told to take cover.

A woman was shot during the conflict and subsequently died. Three others died of separate medical emergencies. A dozen or so police officers were also wounded. 

Montana’s legislators, meanwhile, all posted brief statements on social media immediately after the riot, condemning the violence and saying that they were OK.

In the rally preceding the riot, President Donald Trump re-hashed allegations of election fraud and urged his supporters to keep fighting for him, even suggesting at one point that they walk down to the Capitol. Trump also characterized any media outlets not reporting that his allegations are true as "enemies of the people" during the speech and said he would never concede the election. 

"You don't concede when there is theft involved," he said. "Our country has had enough. We will not take it any more, and that is what this is all about."

Judges presiding over the 60-some cases Trump filed to challenge election results in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin — some of them Trump appointees — have looked at the claims the president has made and dismissed the allegations, citing lack of evidence that any actual fraud took place.

After the rioting began, at 4:17 p.m., Trump released a 1-minute urging supporters to remain peaceful and go home — but it also still pressed claims of election fraud.

"I know your pain, I know you are hurt," Trump said in the video. "We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order, we have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt. ….. So go home. We love you. You are very special."

Man pleads guilty to murder in connection with August 2019 fatal shooting
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A 26-year-old man pleaded guilty Tuesday, Jan. 5 to murder as part of an agreement with prosecutors that would see him spend two decades behind bars.

Reginald Toussaint pleaded guilty in Northwest District Court to a class AA felony charge of murder. He was arrested in September 2019 and accused of shooting and killing Cesar Pineda outside a Williston hotel.

In a short hearing Tuesday, Steven Mottinger, Toussaint’s public defender, said he and his client had discussed the possibility of arguing the shooting was in self-defense, but instead agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. The deal the two sides agreed on would see Toussaint sentenced to 30 years in prison with 10 years suspended.

Police and prosecutors said Toussaint shot and killed Pineda after an argument outside the Days Inn in Williston. Nathan Madden, assistant state’s attorney for Williams County, said it appeared there had been a disagreement about work and Toussaint felt he had been disrespected.

“This is unfortunately the outcome we had here, Your Honor,” Madden told Northwest District Judge Kirsten Sjue.

Sjue ordered a presentence investigation before scheduling a sentencing hearing. Because of the agreement, she will be able to accept it or reject it, but not alter the terms.

Toussaint’s guilty plea resolves another of the homicide cases that were filed in 2019. In December, a judge gave a time-served sentence to Rasul Shaw Jr. after he pleaded guilty to negligent homicide as part of an agreement with prosecutors. He had been charged with murder after police said he stabbed Ricky Waitman to death in a Williston apartment in September 2019.

Also in December, a judge sentenced Justin Crites to serve three years in prison for manslaughter. Crites was convicted in August of manslaughter in connection with the death of Jay LePage outside a Williston bar in May 2019.

In October, a judge accepted a plea agreement that saw Ian Laboyd sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter and aggravated assault. He was charged with murder and attempted murder in connection with the shooting death of Matthew York and the wounding of Parker Haider.

Also in October, Tank McMillin pleaded guilty to child abuse and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He was accused of child abuse related to the death of his newborn son in a Williston hotel room in April 2019. His wife, Hannah McMillin, was originally charged with child abuse, but that charge was changed to murder. Her trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 15.

In May, Samuel Hamilton was sentenced to 10 years in prison for criminal vehicular homicide after he pleaded guilty to the charge. He was attested in April 2019 after a crash that killed a 16-year-old WHS student.

The cases of Hannah McMillin, accused of killing her infant son in April 2019, and Steven Charles Rademacher, who is accused of murder, attempted murder and terrorizing, are still pending. Rademacher was arrested in July 2019 and accused of running down and killing a man after an argument. His trial is scheduled for March.

Burgum looking forward to strong future for North Dakota
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Gov. Doug Burgum’s 2021 State of the State Address reflected on the progress and challenges of the past year while calling for investments in infrastructure to strengthen the state’s future.

Burgum addressed a joint session of the 67th Legislative Assembly on the first day of its biennial session, Tuesday, Jan. 5, and commented on how North Dakotans have experienced much this past year, citing “a flock of black swan events” that included flooding, drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, market crashes and major economic contractions.

“These have tested us in ways that we could not have expected,” Burgum said. “Yet, as we look forward together to the 2021 to 23 biennium, it is clear that our state is well-positioned to rebound and recover, thanks to the courage, the grit, the ingenuity and the resiliency of North Dakotans. Today, the State of the State is one of optimism and new beginnings, built on the confidence of overcoming adversity and the knowledge that we will emerge stronger than ever.”

Burgum went on to thank the efforts of those who have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic, including front-line health care workers, first responders, and educators.

“Today we pause for reflection in the midst of a fight that is not yet over, but one in which we are gaining positive ground and making significant progress daily,” he said. “As often happens in an emergency, heroes emerge from the crisis. And we’ve had no shortage of heroes in North Dakota in 2020.”

Burgum highlighted the state’s continued growth, stating that the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual estimate released last week listed North Dakota’s population at a record 765,309 as of July 1. He added that the state expects to receive its official 2020 decennial census count in the spring.

Burgum emphasized that with interest rates at historic lows, the opportunity to bond for roads, bridges, career and technical education centers, and other one-time infrastructure projects, as well as creating a $700 million revolving loan fund to provide low-cost financing for current and future projects. Burgum added that the $1.25 billion bonding proposal would not raise taxes or rely on tax revenues to retire the bonds, instead using a portion of earnings from the state’s Legacy Fund.

“We have a historic opportunity to invest in infrastructure, diversify the economy, build healthy, vibrant communities, support research and innovation, transform government and build true legacy projects for the prosperity of North Dakotans for generations to come,” Burgum explained. “We can set our state on a positive trajectory by leveraging the ingenuity and resources of the private sector and harnessing the power of the Legacy Fund. And we can accomplish all of this with a fiscally conservative state budget that holds the line on general fund spending, invests in our priorities and maintains healthy reserves, all without raising taxes.”

In the education sector, Burgum asked the Legislature, North Dakota University System, and State Board of Higher Education to join in a study and development of a permanent Higher Education Stabilization and Transformation Fund for North Dakota Public Institutions, with the goal of initiation and implementation by 2024.

“This fund should be used to stabilize higher education funding, finding ways to drive growth and incentivize increased public-private partnerships and investment in 21st century education models,” Burgum said.

The governor commented on his optimism for state’s agriculture and energy sectors and the need to support the state’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy development, which embraces oil, gas, coal, hydroelectric, bio-fuels, wind and solar energy. North Dakota ranks sixth in total energy production for the nation.

He proposed additional investments in behavioral health services and upgrading information technology systems, highlighted investment and growth in the state’s Unmanned Aerial Systems industry and advocated for the development of more economically sound cities that maximize the use of existing infrastructure to create healthy, vibrant communities as well as limit property tax growth.

He applauded the state’s tourism sector, as well as promoting the state’s quality of life. He noted that North Dakota was ranked number one in air and water quality, third in best places to raise a family and the state also received top five rankings in infrastructure and the best state for millennials.

“All of this adds up to North Dakota being a great place to live, work and raise a family,” he stated. “Which we all know, and many national scorecards have affirmed in this past year.”

Burgum commented that growth in the state’s biotech sector is “incredible,” and noted the role that Fargo-based biotech company Aldevron has played in the vaccine development. Burgum took time to recognize special guests founding CEO and Executive Chairman Michael Chambers, current CEO Kevin Ballinger, Senior Manager of Client Relations Matt Krusen and Technical Operations Manager Angelica Meyer.

“Fortunately, we have new tools at our disposal to fight COVID, with effective vaccines, rapid tests that help screen out asymptomatic positives and break the chain of transmission, and effective therapeutics that can drastically improve survival rates when administered at the right time,” Burgum said. “This battle is far from over. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we’ve got the tools to get us there.”

The governor also recognized special guest Mandy Holte, whose late husband, Grand Forks Police Officer and North Dakota National Guard 1st Lt. Cody Holte, was killed in the line of duty on May 27, 2020, while responding to a shooting incident.

“Officer Holte selflessly dedicated his life to protecting his community, his state and his country,” Burgum said, addressing Holte’s family,, “Cody’s legacy of service will live on forever in the hearts and minds of North Dakotans, and they have our everlasting support and deepest gratitude for his incredible ultimate sacrifice. ”

Burgum shared his love for the state, speaking of the gratitude and pride he has for North Dakota and the people in it. He spoke for the hopes for the coming year, stating the a brighter future is what all North Dakotans should strive for, not just for themselves, but for future generations. His voice full of emotion, Burgum concluded his address with a message of hope for the coming year.

“Everyone who’s spent a winter in North Dakota knows that feeling on that first, bright, warm, snow-melting day of spring. That feeling where the sun hits your face, and the angle of the sun is high, and it just feels different.” he said. “And you know that brighter, warmer days are ahead. Let us look to our abundant future, and fill it not just with economic prosperity, but also with the joy and happiness that comes from our hearts. Let us stand together as North Dakotans, united in commitment to respect one another, to be compassionate to one another and to love one another.”

Active COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations fall as governor drops risk level
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Gov. Doug Burgum has lowered the state’s COVID-19 risk level from high to moderate and increased the capacity allowed at restaurants, bars and other venues.

The number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 dropped from more than 300 in mid-November to 85 on Wednesday, Jan. 6, while active cases have decreased to 1,987 since peaking at over 10,200 on Nov. 13, according to the Department of Health. The state’s 14-day rolling average positivity rate also has decreased from 16 percent to 4.6 percent since Nov. 17.

Bars, restaurants and other food service establishments have been operating at up to 50 percent of their licensed seated capacity, not to exceed 150 patrons, since Nov. 16.

Under the amended executive order, these establishments will be able to start operating at 65 percent of licensed facility capacity, not to exceed 200 patrons, beginning 8 a.m. Jan. 8. Seating arrangements and tables must still allow for at least 6 feet of physical distance between individual parties; dance areas must be closed; service must be provided to seated patrons only; and masks must be worn by owners, managers and employees at all times, and by patrons except when eating or drinking.

In addition, banquet, ballroom and event venues, which have been limited to 25 percent capacity since Nov. 16, will be able to start operating at 50 percent capacity as of 8 a.m. Jan. 8, not to exceed the ND Smart Restart capacity limits.

Burgum also encouraged people to use the state’s supply of BinaxNOW rapid tests, which can give test results in about 15 minutes.

“As more and more businesses, communities, school districts and higher education institutions implement rapid testing, we can continue to screen out asymptomatic positives to break the chain of transmission, slow the spread and further open up restaurants, bars and event centers,” Burgum said. “Successful deployment of vaccines and more widespread use of effective therapeutics also will help us preserve hospital capacity, protect the vulnerable and keep students learning in person.”

State officials are closely monitoring the data for a potential post-holiday surge in COVID-19 cases and are concerned about possible cases being missed because of low levels of testing, and will continue to evaluate the current state risk level and look for opportunities to return to a more localized approach, including adjusting risk levels on a county-by-county basis.

A State Health Officer order requiring face coverings to be worn in indoor businesses and indoor public settings, as well as outdoor public settings where physical distancing isn’t possible, remains in effect until Monday, Jan. 18.

To avoid another surge in cases and hospitalizations, residents are urged to physically distance, wear masks, wash hands, limit gatherings and take advantage of testing opportunities. Visit www.health.nd.gov/testnd for more information on testing times and locations.

Free community rapid COVID-19 testing to be offered Jan. 11 in Williston
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Williston, in partnership with Williams County/Williston Emergency Management, Upper Missouri District Health Unit, and the State of North Dakota, will offer its first community BinaxNOW Rapid Antigen screening on Monday, Jan. 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This drive-thru testing event is open to people who are showing no signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and will be held at the former Sloulin Airport hangar at 408 Airport Road.

If you are showing signs and symptoms of COVID-19, please contact your primary care physician.

People wishing to access the testing site are asked to turn on their vehicle’s 4-way flashers, enter from 42nd Street West, and then turn on Sixth Avenue West. Traffic control officers and posted signage will provide additional guidance.

Tests will be self-administered with the assistance of the Williston Fire Department, Williston Police Department, and other City of Williston and Williams County staff. Once individuals complete their test, they will leave the site and receive their results in approximately 15 minutes via text message.

Individuals are strongly encouraged to pre-register before arriving at the test site. Registration can be completed online at https://testreg.nd.gov/

“We hope the public takes advantage of this opportunity for rapid testing,” emphasized David Tuan, City Administrator. “The long-term goal is to train many in the community on how to properly conduct these tests and continue to add to the data collection in North Dakota.”

In addition to the BinaxNOW option, the weekly drive-thru COVID-19 testing event will be offered Monday, Jan. 11 from 4. to 6 p.m. at Williston State College in the Art Wood Building.