BISMARCK — Questions abound regarding virtually every aspect of a new constitutional amendment mandating North Dakota government ethics.
The Legislature’s interim Judiciary Committee Wednesday, Sept. 25, began a study of the initiated constitutional amendment that bore the five-person Ethics Commission, which met for the first time two weeks ago. The study came as an amendment to a bill implementing the Ethics Commission after voters’ passage in 2018.
The Judiciary Committee was met with a wide array of questions about legal provisions and eventual ethics rules regarding transparency, elections, lobbying and corruption.
Rep. Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, an attorney who chairs the committee, posed a bevy of questions, from legal inconsistencies and definitions to budgeting for the Ethics Commission to gray areas of authority of the Legislature and the new panel.
“It may be that some (statutory) provisions should be amended or deleted,” Klemin said. “It may be that some provisions should be added.”
Lobbyists Christopher Dodson and John Olson followed up with further questions related to lobbying, campaigns and other legal definitions.
“It may be fashionable to portray lobbyists as fat cats buying favors with dark money from legislators on behalf of wealthy, big businesses, but the reality is much different,” Dodson said.
“The bottom line is that we desire to have very clear, enforceable rules,” Olson said.
Questions around the Ethics Commission’s authority have ranged far, from lawmakers’ use of social media to investigating oilfield spills. Chairman Ron Goodman has said the Ethics Commission won’t get into those areas.
Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, asked if the Ethics Commission’s authority would extend to “fraudulent or deceptive advertising” such as in political campaigns involving two bitter opponents.
“I think that’s a question for the Ethics Commission,” Klemin said, echoing a common theme as the new board establishes itself.
One major question for both the Judiciary Committee and the Ethics Commission is an apparent conflict between constitutional language mandating a confidential whistleblower hotline and statutory language prohibiting the Ethics Commission from handling anonymous complaints.
Legislative Council attorney Claire Ness, an attorney for the Legislature, said a government entity may investigate an anonymous tip and bring enforcement action against a person, provided the tip isn’t used as testimony in any proceedings.
House lawmakers have said an accused party should have the right to face his or her accuser. Two ethics commissioners attended the Judiciary Committee’s meeting at Klemin’s invitation but did not participate on the advice of the commission’s attorney, who previously cautioned the commission’s members to avoid the appearance or perception of fraternizing with other branches of government.
Commissioners Ward Koeser, a former Williston mayor, and Paul Richard, an attorney and retired Sanford Health executive from Fargo, sat in the audience and did not speak or appear before the committee.
Klemin said the study may not answer every question. The committee will vote in August 2020 whether to proceed with any bills proposed for the 2021 Legislature.
The Ethics Commission next meets Oct. 23 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. The Judiciary Committee will meet again in November.