Federal investigations cast shadow on Dunseith manufacturing site
Federal investigations cast shadow on Dunseith manufacturing site
Potential local economic development on hold as case unfolds
By Michael Standaert, North Dakota News Cooperative
Federal investigations into possibly sensitive military defense and commercial aerospace materials discovered at a Dunseith manufacturing facility are curtailing development of a new company that could hire dozens of employees once fully operable.
Greater concerns beyond local development are also being raised, with the potential that some of these components made their way into military or commercial aircraft supply chains, threatening both flight safety and military readiness.
Citing ongoing investigations, the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division [CID] declined to provide further information about materials found at the site once operated by defense and aerospace contractor Benchmark Electronics, then owned by the city since 2015.
The town of just upwards of 600 residents at the western edge of Rolette County had attempted to find a prominent job-creating tenant for the nearly 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility since late 2015.
The city had over $200,000 in expenses over seven years to keep it from deteriorating in hopes it could eventually house a job-creating company.
When Benchmark moved its operations from the facility to Rochester, Minn. starting in February 2015 and ending later that year, 140 locals lost their jobs.
For the town of Dunseith, the arrival of Hoefer RV and its interest in purchasing the site appeared to be a godsend for the local economy in the poorest county in the state.
Hoefer RV, owned by Charles Hoefer, son of recreational vehicle industry pioneer David Hoefer Sr., best known for Four Winds and Dutchman RV brands, purchased and finally took over the site and 10 acres in 2022 for $525,000.
It was as Hoefer RV attempted to get its operation up and running in late summer 2022 that the discovery of potentially sensitive materials left behind began causing problems.
Documents, photographs and other information provided by Hoefer show the U.S. Army and other Department of Defense personnel collected around 20 boxes of material from the facility in June 2023.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army’s CID at Ft. Belvoir, Va. said no further information could be release because the CID is “still in the process of its investigation.”
NDNC has viewed documentation revealing criminal investigators from the IRS and the Federal Aviation also collected materials from the site earlier this year.
NDNC verified the identity of agents by first calling and then e-mailing them, which elicited responses from the criminal investigation division of the St. Louis field office of the IRS and the head Washington, D.C. office of the FAA.
Both offices declined to confirm or deny whether official investigations had commenced following the evidence collection.
North Dakota’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation also confirmed an “active investigation” into what occurred at the former Benchmark site following an open records request in early October, and that it “could not release anything at this time.”
Some details of evidence discovered at the site during the renovation process are documented in a lawsuit filed by Hoefer against Benchmark, William Tuttle of Dunseith and five “John Doe” defendants who have not been named. Lawsuit papers were initially served in mid-April, with an amended 122-page suit filed in August in Rolette County.
Under agreements with the city, Tuttle operated the company Chiptronics Inc. at the facility after his former employer, Benchmark, left in late 2015.
Tuttle was also temporarily employed by Hoefer from April 2022 until being fired in July 2022 and is now employed by Dunseith High School as a business teacher.
Some of the evidence at the site was potentially left over material from Benchmark and some potentially from activities by Chiptronics after Benchmark vacated. It will be up to federal investigators to determine whether crimes may have been committed.
Attempts to interview Tuttle were unsuccessful. His attorney, Erin Conroy of Bottineau, stated that Tuttle “had no knowledge of any of the criminal investigations.”
Erin Bradham, a partner at Dentons, the international the law firm representing Benchmark in the civil suit filed by Hoefer, stated that the company “has not been contacted by any law enforcement agency regarding any criminal investigation.”
When Benchmark was producing and reworking electronic assemblies, strict production procedures were followed from station to station among the production line, said Chris Wilmot, a former process engineer at Benchmark who left shortly after the announced closure in Feb. 2015.
Other requirements included controls for temperature, humidity, dust and static electricity, said Wilmot, who now works as a senior engineer for Hoefer RV.
From what they found hidden throughout the building starting in August 2022 – physical components, check copies, record logs of rework, shipping logs of materials going to and from Rochester by UPS -- it appeared that work occurred long after Benchmark’s site departure.
“At that point, I couldn’t conceive of any activity still occurring,” Wilmot said, referring to records dating all the way up through May 2022 – after Hoefer RV had occupied the site. “As we kept on renovating, we kept finding materials that were present when I was working here, still here.”
Besides information discovered in the lawsuit, Hoefer provided other documentation including evidence of defense and aerospace components such as digital ring laser gyroscopes, also known as GG1320s, that were found.
According to documentation from aerospace giant Honeywell, these components are “essential to flight safety, reduced human error, accuracy and more, in both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Also discovered were guided missile launch system electronics, parts and related documents, discs and hard drives, with materials detailed in collection forms filled out by DoD agents.
Some of the components were materials potentially covered under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), according to the lawsuit.
Hoefer also alleges he found, and has shown documentation to investigators, records of shipments to China during the period after Benchmark vacated the facility.
Production of GG1320s, when conducted by Benchmark at the facility before it left, was calculated by the number of “cans” finished, reworked, or cleaned.
If production or rework of these components was done by Chiptronics at the Dunseith site, it is unclear if the necessary certifications to handle sensitive defense and commercial aerospace work orders were held or obtained.
"On the whole, the situation was shocking,” Hoefer said. “For nine months, we were struggling to get missile parts lawfully removed, and kept uncovering more things that shouldn't have been there. It really impacted facility use and access."
After learning about the investigations and the trouble that Hoefer RV has had getting off the ground, State Senators Kent Weston of Sarles, Bob Paulson of Minot and Keith Boehm of Mandan attempted to obtain information from state officials about the situation as well as how to resolve it.
This included requesting a meeting with Attorney General Drew Wrigley for Oct. 3, which his office initially accepted and then declined due to a scheduling conflict.
NDNC requests to interview Wrigley about his understanding of the federal investigations were declined, with his executive assistant stating that it would not be appropriate “to comment on this as it is a sensitive ongoing investigation.”
Requests to Gov. Doug Burgum’s office about knowledge of the investigations were referred to the Commerce Department. Burgum spokesperson Mike Nowatzki stated that, to his knowledge, the Governor’s Office has received no briefings from federal authorities related to this project.
Sens. Weston and Boehm met with State Auditor Josh Gallion Oct. 3, and also had a video meeting with members of Commerce and the North Dakota Development Fund, which is under contract with Hoefer RV on a $2.25 million line of inventory financing credit.
“At this point, with state laws, I can’t really disclose,” Gallion told NDNC following that meeting when asked about the investigations. “We’re evaluating.”
Sen. Paulson, an ex-Navy and commercial pilot, said his main concern is that there “seems to be a hesitancy to engage” on the part of state officials who may have had knowledge of this situation for some time now.
“I think it’s just important to get to the bottom of it,” Paulson said. “I think there’s too many people who seem hesitant to visit about it and that makes me concerned. Let’s go ahead and get everything on the table so we know what the deal is and then deal with whatever it is that we have.”
Asked about potential safety concerns related to possible work on components being done at the facility after Benchmark left, Paulson said, “If they were trying to keep the repairs under the radar, that’s concerning to me. There are some unexplained things going on with airplanes that are heavily reliant on electronics, so I think that’s something that should be looked into.”
Jason Nordmark, publisher and editor of the Turtle Mountain Star in Rolla, contributed to this story.
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Commerce Commissioner Josh Teigen speaks to a gathering at the soft opening of Hoefer RV on July 13, 2023. Photo provided by the Turtle Mountain Star.