Investigation into Dunseith site reveals long-time official involvement
Investigation into Dunseith site reveals long-time official involvement
Local and state officials frequently briefed on activities of Chiptronics Inc.
By Michael Standaert, North Dakota News Cooperative
An investigation by U.S. Army criminal investigators and evidence collection by other federal authorities related to aerospace and defense components found at a manufacturing facility in Dunseith have raised questions into what state and local authorities understood about activities occurring at the site.
Over the years federal, state and local officials approved funding to try to keep the facility viable, with the latest being a $2.25 million North Dakota Development Fund line of inventory financing credit to support the rollout of recreational vehicles.
The site, purchased by Hoefer RV in 2022 for the purpose of producing RVs, was previously owned by Benchmark Electronics until 2015.
In the seven years between it was owned by the city of Dunseith.
After Benchmark vacated in 2015, the facility was leased by the city to a company called Chiptronics, Inc. run by William Tuttle, Linus Morin and Rocky Davis of Dunseith.
Chiptronics, Inc. founded in 1977, had worked as a distributor for Benchmark and, according to the company website, transitioned into manufacturing at the site in 2016.
A key question now considering that federal investigators have collected material from the site, is whether state and local officials understood exactly what work Chiptronics was doing there.
Documents held by the Bottineau Economic Development Corporation detail a series of in-person and teleconference briefings Tuttle gave to state and local officials and other community leaders from 2015 to 2019.
In these meetings Tuttle outlines work being conducted for Benchmark, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and other companies.
Throughout 2017 these meetings were held almost monthly, and then tapered off through 2019.
The meetings included a now-retired Commerce official, USDA officials, representatives from both U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer’s staffs, a NDSU Extension representative who is now a Commerce official, the state Indian Affairs Commission director, local Dunseith officials and a local banking representative.
Documents show they were updated by Tuttle about progress on work Chiptronics, Inc. was doing at the site as well as the sending of several employees to Benchmark’s facility in Rochester, Minn.
These records were verified as accurate by now-retired Commerce official Laura Willard who attended the meetings throughout the period, usually by teleconference.
Her recollection was that the meetings were mostly about trying to find a permanent company to occupy the facility and bring jobs back to Dunseith.
Interviews with most of those who were part of the meetings presents a fuzzy picture of what was known about Chiptronics’ work, whether it was conducted at the site at all, or whether the company was just outsourcing workers to Rochester.
Several of those interviewed did not have a clear idea about the work Chiptronics did and little understanding of the work Benchmark previously did at the site.
Current Commerce official David Lehman, who was also involved in Hoefer RV’s location to the site, attended the meetings between 2015 and 2017 as part of his work as a specialist with the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering Extension at NDSU.
Initial questions to Commerce in late September about its understanding Chiptronics’ work, prompted a reply stating that Lehman recalled “that any rework being done for Benchmark was moved to an out of state facility” and that he had no information “that would indicate there was rework occurring at the Dunseith facility or anywhere else in North Dakota.”
Later shown a document from those meetings where Tuttle had briefed about work for a major defense contractor, Lehman noted that he could not definitively say whether work associated with a specific 100-piece order for Lockheed Martin “was conducted at Dunseith or elsewhere.”
Those recollections go somewhat counter to two former mayors of Dunseith who were part of the meetings, Bob Leonard and Jesse Marion.
Leonard said that while the meetings were mostly about how to get more economic development into Dunseith, they did include work updates from Tuttle. According to Leonard, it was his understanding that Benchmark did send components back to Chiptronics for work.
“Benchmark sent some of that stuff up to Dunseith to have some of that work done there, but to what extent that was, I really don’t know,” Leonard said. “The only thing I know that (Tuttle) was doing was rework on some caps that didn’t amount to much, just some kind of a cleaning job, I thought it was. You know, cleaning something up.”
Leonard said he was not aware that the Army Criminal Investigation Division or any other federal investigators were looking into the matter and had collected evidence. Marion also said he was unaware of the investigations.
Marion, who finished his most recent term as mayor after the sale to Hoefer RV, also indicated he was aware Benchmark sent “cans” back to Chiptronics to work on at the facility.
“They were cleaning cans, but I don’t think it was a ton of work,” Marion said of the Chiptronics work. “They were still having some kind of relationship, what (Tuttle) had with Benchmark and Chiptronics. I’m not sure how they cleaned them … it was just something sent to them and they were sending them back and forth.”
Scott Davis, executive director for the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission from 2009 to 2021, and also an attendee of the meetings, was certain that work for Benchmark, Honeywell and Lockheed Martin was conducted at the site.
“Absolutely,” Davis said in response to a question about work done for Benchmark by Chiptronics at the site.
“Those entities were working through or with Dunseith, that was always my understanding,” Davis said. “I never knew the entirety of what Benchmark, and Lockheed Martin, and Honeywell, I was never in that space of what types of contracts they had or anything. I wasn’t privy to any of that information.”
Grant provided to Chiptronics
In 2017, USDA Rural Development provided a $253,506 grant, awarded through the North Central Planning Council (NCPC) based in Devils Lake, for the purchase and lease of equipment to assist Chiptronics in “expanding their manufacturing lines and increasing production runs at their Dunseith facility” according to information provided by USDA officials in Bismarck, and that this was “expected to assist in the creation of 13 new jobs over a three-year period.”
Sandy Shively, executive director of the NCPC and a participant at those meetings, said it was her understanding that the grant went toward the purchase of a plasma metal cutter for Tuttle to work on metal art, and that a forklift and welding equipment was also bought as part of this.
“The purpose of the task force was to try to get other manufacturing type of businesses in there,” Shively said. “The meetings were not just focused on one entity.”
While Tuttle presented information at each meeting with all notes on slides labeled “Chiptronics” he did discuss other work besides that for Benchmark, Lockheed Martin and Honeywell, with one project to produce a North Dakota-invented product called Hydrant Buddy, work on battery chargers, and a variety of others, though they did not appear to be the main thrust of his work.
Shively referred questions on specific information on manufacturing lines and whether 13 jobs were created back to the USDA.
The USDA, asked whether there was information on what the funds went to, or if those jobs were created, said any further information would need to go through a Freedom of Information Act request to USDA. NDNC has filed an FOIA for the grant records.
Staff from both Cramer and Hoeven’s teams were listed on e-mail chains for the meetings, though some participants said they were infrequent participants.
“In light of the ongoing civil litigation associated with this matter, along with the alleged criminal investigation, I will not be providing comment based upon the advice of Senate Legal Counsel,” Cramer said in a statement issued by his spokesperson.
“Several years ago, a former staffer was invited to some meetings organized by the North Dakota Department of Commerce regarding efforts to repurpose the facility; however, we do not have specifics of those discussions,” Hoeven’s spokesperson said.
Question on work and qualifications
In the meeting documents, Tuttle describes work on “cans” and the “volume of gyro cans” being worked on for Benchmark, not “caps,” but little is understood about what that work entailed.
Tuttle would not respond to requests for an interview and his attorney declined requests to make him available.
Calls to Morin, previously listed as a president for Chiptronics, were hung up on. Calls and messages to people known to have worked for Tuttle at Chiptronics were hung up on or not responded to. Rocky Davis, listed as a vice president for Chiptronics and who owns the Garden Tap Bar in Dunseith, did not respond to messages asking him to call NDNC.
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 obtained.
Chiptronics stated in documents presented at the meetings with officials that it had obtained or was in the process of obtaining certifications for work done at the site by the company. The company website also claims it held or obtained a number of certifications.
Requests to Tuttle’s attorney for documentation related to Chiptronics’ certifications and qualifications were not fulfilled.
NDNC currently has no way to independently verify if certifications, some which potentially include self-reporting requirements, were in place for the company.
An encumbered site
As of mid-October 2023, no RVs have yet been produced at the site and only a total of nine jobs created.
Expectations were that after several months of renovating what had become a deteriorated facility and getting initial hires trained and up to speed, RVs could potentially start rolling out of the facility by the end of 2022, according to Charles Hoefer, son of recreational vehicle industry pioneer David Hoefer Sr., best known for Four Winds and Dutchman RV brands.
Hoefer contends that the site was encumbered by sensitive components and missile parts found in the facility during the renovation process that were not quickly removed by state or federal law enforcement, reducing his ability to get the facility fully functioning.
State Sen. Kent Weston, who became aware of the trouble Hoefer RV had in getting production rolling in recent weeks, is hoping officials can provide more transparency.
“I have concerns and want answers about state entities’ involvement and knowledge,” Weston said of the documented official contact with Chiptronics over the years. “I want to give Charles (Hoefer) the best opportunity for his business to succeed.”
Documents also show that officials have had knowledge of Hoefer’s concerns about the site dating back to September 2022, and had an understanding that sensitive materials were at the site.
North Dakota Development Fund CEO and Commerce department official Jessica Tooke was also present at the Army Criminal Investigation Division collection in June and the FAA collection in May, as well as remotely as part of interviews the IRS had with Hoefer about evidence collected from the site in March, Commerce confirmed.
Commerce said on Oct. 6 that Tooke recalls being at the facility on multiple occasions where Hoefer had felt her presence would “aid him in moving past site concerns relative to documents and materials left at the facility and he could advance business operations at that time.”
Jason Nordmark, publisher and editor of the Turtle Mountain Star in Rolla, contributed to this story.
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Cutline: Commerce Commissioner Josh Teigen [center, t-shirt], Commerce’s David Lehman [in sport jacket to his left] and others test RV flooring at a soft opening of Hoefer RV on July 13, 2023. Photo provided by the Hoefer RV.