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PSC race sets off finger-pointing galore

BISMARCK -- It's usually one of the last statewide contests listed on the ballot, and often the last on voters' minds. But few elections are more heated this year than the race for the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

There are suggestions of bribery, charges of hypocrisy, lawsuits against sitting officials -- and looming behind all of it, the growing importance of board that regulates key sectors of that state's energy industry.

It's a complex battle for a commission with a complex role. The three-member board oversees a broad range of business activity related to commerce and infrastructure, from utility rates and oil pipelines to grain elevators and weights and measures.

One candidate has staked his campaign on the claim that the regulators themselves -- and the campaign contributions they collect -- need to be better regulated.

Brad Crabtree, a longtime energy policy guru, said the current commission is too partisan in its decision-making and too cozy with the businesses it regulates.

He said tens of thousands of dollars in contributions current commissioners Kevin Cramer and Brian Kalk have accepted from energy industry sources they regulate are unseemly and possibly illegal under the state's bribery act.

Even if the contributions are legal, "they're not appropriate," he said in an interview Tuesday. "It needs to stop."

Cramer and Kalk, both Republicans, ran against each other in this year's primary election for North Dakota's lone House seat in Congress. Cramer won in a contested race and is the GOP candidate in the general election Nov. 6.

Crabtree, a Democrat who lost a PSC bid in 2010 to Cramer, pledged at the outset of his 2012 campaign to refuse any contributions from donors the PSC regulates.

Randy Christmann, Crabtree's Republican opponent, used that pledge as a launching point to jump into the fray Tuesday. Christmann said Crabtree had broken his own pledge.

"Despite his concerns about the effects of industry money on the PSC, he's accepted money from people with pipeline interests in North Dakota," Christmann said in a news conference in Fargo.

He said Crabtree's criticism of Cramer and Kalk -- which often has been sharper than his criticism of Christmann, even though neither commissioner is up for re-election to the PSC -- amounts to an effort to freeze some contributors out of the political process.

Christmann's remarks appeared to come in coordination with a statement from the state Republican Party released Monday. The statement identified five of Crabtree's donors it claimed violated his own contributions pledge.

Crabtree, in response, said four of the donors did not represent interests regulated by the PSC.

One of the four was Sue Shaper, the mother of C. Park Shaper, president of Texas pipeline company Kinder Morgan. The company has interests before the PSC. Crabtree said that connection was familial, not industrial: Sue Shaper is his sister's mother-in-law.

He said he is looking into the fifth, a friend who owns a land and mineral rights firm. The donor, Michael Marcus of Massachusetts, gave him $250.

"As far as I can tell at this time, there isn't a conflict," he said. "If there is, I will return the money."

Crabtree has challenged Christmann to adhere to the same pledge on donors he has made. Christmann hasn't done so.

Kalk and Cramer both said there was nothing wrong with contributions they have accepted, nor any influence won for the donors.

Kalk said his decisions are guided solely by the facts in front of him and the laws on the books. Allegations to the contrary "are just ridiculous," he said.

Cramer echoed that sentiment and said precluding energy sector workers or other donors from campaign contributions would "silence one part of the population."

Crabtree hasn't proposed legally curbing donations and said it's probably not possible to do given recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings against campaign finance limits.

Instead, he's proposed new rules to require more disclosure and force commissioners to recuse themselves from decisions involving parties from which they've accepted contributions.

He's not the only one sore over the contributions Kalk and Cramer have taken.

The Dakota Resource Council, an environmental advocacy group, and the state's chapter of the Sierra Club sued in May to have the commission stripped of its oversight over mining because of an alleged conflict of interest.