North Dakota's longest serving state senator, Ray Holmberg, resigned on Wednesday as chairman of an influential legislative committee after it was reported that he had exchanged texts with a jailed man facing child pornography charges.
The report, by North Dakota newspaper The Forum, alleged the 78-year-old Holmberg exchanged 72 text messages with a 34-year-old jailed landscaper, Nicholas James Morgan-Derosier, who faces federal child pornography and sexual abuse charges.
In an email statement on Wednesday, Holmberg, a Republican, said he would be stepping down as chairman of Legislative Management, a committee that oversees the North Dakota Legislature's work between sessions.
"Recent events and discussions have made it clear to me that the interim governing body of the legislature, Legislative Management, does not need to be any part of that discussion," Holmberg wrote in the statement to The Forum.
"Consequently, I will be stepping down as chairman of Legislative Management, effective immediately. This will allow Vice-chairman Chet Pollert to complete my term."
"No further comments on this announcement will be forthcoming."
Morgan-Derosier was being held on state child pornography charges at the Grand Forks County Jail in the summer of 2021.
Inmates at the Grand Forks jail are allowed to use an approved text messaging service while detained. It is through this service that Morgan-Derosier allegedly contacted Holmberg.
The Forum, quoting jail records, reported on April 15 that a phone number used by Holmberg was among those that Morgan-Derosier had texted on Aug. 23 and 24 last year when he was in jail.
Holmberg told the news outlet that his text messages with Morgan-Derosier were related to "a variety of things," including patio work Morgan-Derosier did for him. He said he no longer had the text messages.
The subject of Morgan-Derosier's texts had come up earlier at a Jan. 4 detention hearing in North Dakota's federal court, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Puhl said Morgan-Derosier texted a "77-year-old man from Grand Forks" on August 23, 2021.
The 77-year-old man, who was not identified in court, told Morgan-Derosier that "he wants him to bring (Morgan-Derosier's boyfriend) over to his house to give him a massage," Puhl said in a transcript obtained by The Forum. The boyfriend was 19 or 20 years old.
"At the time of the defendant's arrest, law enforcement asked (the boyfriend) whether he was aware that the defendant was serving him up to a 77-year-old man, and (the boyfriend) said no," Puhl said, according to the transcript.
Holmberg, when asked by The Forum about the messages mentioned in court, said "I don't know what you're talking about."
GOP state Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner reflected on the incident while speaking to the Associated Press. He said that Holmberg is guilty of bad judgment but nothing else, at this stage.
"He sent 72 messages to a bad, bad person," Wardner told the AP.
"That's not illegal and until there is more information I think [his committee resignation] is a step in the right direction... If there is any evidence of any wrongdoing, we will act and we will act quickly. Right now, all we have is that it looks bad."
Holmberg was first elected to the North Dakota Senate in 1976 and has been the nation's longest-serving state senator.
As well as being the chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee and procedural Rules Committee, he also serves on the interim Budget Section.
Earlier this year in March, Holmberg announced his decision to retire as a state senator this year, according to The Forum.
He cited medical issues that deprived him of the "cognitive ability to accurately perform" his work as one of the reasons.
When Holmberg was contacted for additional comment he told Newsweek: "Under advisement of counsel I will make no further comments."