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Group seeks to force ND Legislature to form ethics commission

Mary C. Tintes and Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, spoke about creating a state ethics commission at a League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley meeting on Friday, March 2, 2018. Wendy Reuer / The Forum

FARGO—After years of failed attempts in the North Dakota Legislature to form an ethics commission that would keep lawmakers in check, citizens are taking the matter into their own hands.

Since January, three petitions to begin a ballot initiative dubbed the North Dakota Anti-Corruption Amendment have been submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office for approval.

The ballot measure would require an amendment that would create an ethics commission and aim to regulate lobbyist gifts, prevent personal use of campaign money, conflicts of interest and increase transparency.

At a meeting of the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley on Friday, March 2, Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, said three petitions have been submitted to the Secretary of State's office in hopes one will be approved.

In the first petition submitted, the Legislature is required to set aside $750,000 to operate an ethics commission. The second petition simply requires the Legislature to adequately fund an ethics commission, and the third petition does not require a commission or funding.

All three versions ask an amendment be added to the state constitution requiring:

• All significant amounts of election money raised or spent be fully disclosed and placed online for the public

• Politicians be banned from personal use of campaign contributions

• Restrictions placed on lobbyist gifts

• Foreign money be banned from elections

• Public officials be banned from also serving as lobbyists, and it made illegal for public officials to take jobs as lobbyists for two years after leaving office.

• Improvements to conflict-of-interest rules for members of state agencies.

Something with teeth

In 2015, North Dakota was ranked 37th in public integrity and given a D- grade overall by the Center for Public Integrity or its lack of systems in place to prevent government corruption. It received an F grade for legislative accountability.

It is only one of nine states that has no legislative ethics commission or committee and the only state in the union with no limits on campaign contributions by a single person or group.

In 2017, legislators approved a measure allowing an ethics committee to form, but no further action has been taken.

"The follow-up wasn't there," Hanson said.

While voters can vote a suspected corrupt politician out of office at election time, there are few other controls. Hanson said while breaking some of the few legislative rules can result in removal from office, there is no regulation of what could be minor offenses, and nowhere for the public to report possible violations.

"Without an ethics commission, the options are really stark," Hanson said. "There are either no consequences or you lose your job."

An ethical commission could define violations, investigate and enforce the ethical rules. For example, current legislative rules include one sentence that reads, "Sexual harassment will not be tolerated." The sentence does not define sexual harassment or what punishment would be used if harassment is determined. A commission could define those terms and how to report it and how it would be investigated and punished.

Hanson said an ethics commission could be comprised of members who are from both parties, and include elected and appointed members and members of the public. It could also define how the public would report suspected ethics violations.

While the North Dakotans for Public Integrity report more than 80 percent of North Dakota voters support the tenants of the amendment and 91 percent of voters support better transparency, opposition to the amendment has come in the form of questions about funding and who would be on an ethical commission if created, Hanson said.

Process

The three petitions were sponsored by North Dakotans for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan group co-chaired by longtime government staffer Dina Butcher, a well-known Bismarck Republican and Democrat Ellen Chaffee, former president of Mayville and Valley City State universities.

Butcher and Chaffee submitted the first petition to Jaeger's office on Jan. 31 and the two latest versions were submitted March 2.

According to a statement from Jaeger, his office has until March 13 to provide a petition title for the petitions submitted March 2. The petition would still need circulation approval before it can be taken to the public. The Jan. 31 petition version has not yet been approved for circulation because a proof copy has not been submitted to this office.

"While somewhat common in the membership of the three sponsoring committees, each petition is considered a separate submission by each sponsoring committee and will be processed accordingly," Jaeger said in the statement. "Please remember that I have no authority to review or change any of the text of any petition. I only approve the format of the petition and supply the petition title as approved by the Attorney General. I do not approve the topic of the petition or its wording."

Whitney Oxendahl of Represent Fargo, the Fargo non-partisan group also working for the ballot measure said Friday that once one of the three petitions are approved for circulation, organizers across the state can begin circulation. If 27,000 signatures in support of the initiative are gathered by July 9, the amendment would be placed on the November ballot for voters to decide.

Oxendahl said the groups hope to gather 40,000 signatures.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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