BISMARCK, N.D. — Standing Rock Sioux tribal members and others who are suing over a five-month shutdown of a North Dakota highway during protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline have broadened their claims to include allegations of extortion and media manipulation by state and county officials.
Plaintiffs allege the closure of a stretch of state Highway 1806 was aimed not only at protesters who had gathered in the thousands in camps near the two-lane road but also at influencing the tribe's position on the camps and reporters' coverage of the prolonged clash. It played out over six months in 2016 and 2017 and resulted in 761 arrests.
The new filing by plaintiff's attorney Noah Smith-Drelich references several alleged documents in support of the argument, including a government strategic plan he says detailed concessions authorities wanted from the tribe, such as a public decree to vacate the camps.
"Defendants' true purpose for discriminatorily closing the road in question ... (was) to extort political concessions from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe," Smith-Drelich wrote in an amended complaint filed earlier this month.
The lawsuit also alleges the highway closure made it "substantially more difficult for local press in particular to independently obtain firsthand evidence of what was happening in or around the camps," making reporters more reliant on government accounts of protesters as being "violent and criminal, and of the (protest) movement as defined by mayhem."
The state attorney general's office declined comment on the new claims and said it will be filing a formal response in federal court. Morton County lead attorney Randall Bakke said Friday that he will do the same and added, "We don't think there's any basis for the claims."
The $3.8 billion pipeline has been moving North Dakota oil to Illinois since June 2017. Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners maintains it's safe, but opponents who fear environmental harm fought its construction for months.
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State officials blocked off a stretch of 1806 just north of the camps in October 2016 after a bridge was damaged by fires during one clash between protesters and police. The bridge was deemed structurally sound in January 2017, but authorities didn't reopen it for two more months, after initial repairs were completed and the protest camps were shut down.
The lawsuit initially filed last October argues that the highway closure unduly restricted travel and commerce and violated free speech and religious rights. A reservation businesswoman, two pipeline opponents and a priest at a reservation church seek unspecified money damages from the state, county and TigerSwan, a North Carolina-based company that oversaw private security for ETP. They also seek class-action status.
Plaintiffs initially also asked a judge to force the implementation of stricter rules for road closures in such instances, but they have dropped that request. Government attorneys last month had argued that the request was improper because "plaintiffs merely speculate defendants may again restrict traffic at some unspecified time and under some unspecified conditions in the future."
They also argued that officials had not only the authority to shut down the highway but also an obligation to do it.
"Bottom line, we feel it was appropriate for the Highway Patrol and Sheriff (Kyle) Kirchmeier to close the road for public health, public safety and public welfare reasons," Bakke said Friday.
TigerSwan has asked to be dismissed as a defendant, arguing it had nothing to do with the shutdown. The plaintiffs allege the company "actively provided logistical support to law enforcement."