When Duke Pesta, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and an outspoken critic of the controversial Common Core education standards, came to North Dakota he was greeted with attacks on his motivations and political associations.
It turns out some of those attacks came from a North Dakota Department of Public Instruction employee who was using an anonymous email to disseminate information to lawmakers and members of the media.
In the lead up to Pesta's visits to Bismarck and Fargo this week, DPI public information officer Dale Wetzel used a Gmail account to forward information to members of the state Legislature and at least one reporter, Hannah Johnson of the Bismarck Tribune. Among the documents sent were a copy of IRS Form 990 for the American Opinion Foundation, a list of "talking points" about Pesta and a third document entitled "The Truth About Duke Pesta."
"He is a traveling salesman who is bad-mouthing Common Core to sell his own educational product," reads one statement about Pesta in the "talking points" document.
"What is Pesta's motivation? Money," states the "Truth About Duke Pesta" document.
Initially, Superintendent of Public Schools Kirsten Baesler, who holds a non-partisan office but was endorsed by North Dakota Republicans, told Watchdog these emails were not coming from the Department of Public Instruction. But after an email forward from state Rep. Mike Nathe, a Republican from Bismarck, indicated the emails were originating with Wetzel, Baesler acknowledged they were sent out by a member of her staff.
But Baesler insists the emails were not sent at her instruction, nor were they sent using DPI resources.
"I did this on my own time and with my own equipment," Wetzel told Watchdog in an email. "No one at DPI told me to do it."
"I started the email address to send out the Pesta stuff because I didn't want to clutter up my name gmail account with Common Core stuff," Wetzel said, referencing his personal email account. "I figured it wouldn't take a genius to figure out it was me anyway."
Wetzel said the email address, created Monday, was only used in his personal time, on his private laptop, and that he created the email address "so that members of the press and legislators in North Dakota would know more background about an English teacher from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who presents himself as an expert on Common Core."
Wetzel acknowledged he talked about the same material from his emails while appearing on the Jay Thomas Show on WDAY AM970 in Fargo in his capacity as DPI spokesman.
In a press release sent out in response to Wetzel's emails, Pesta disputed the notion his anti-Common Core advocacy is about money. "Far from using his speech to advertise his educational materials, Dr. Pesta says Common Core is the single best advertisement to come down the road for homeschooling in the past 50 years," the release states.
Watchdog has filed an open records request for the last 30 days of emails from the firstname.lastname@example.org address. Wetzel has provided documents sent from the account, but as of the time of publication DPI hasn't responded to the request.
Wetzel has a Saturday talk radio show on the Bismarck-based KFYR AM550 and is a former reporter for the Associated Press.
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