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Campaign donation lawsuit draws PSC interest: Cramer, Kalk under fire; South Heart coal mine application pending

Brian Kalk

BISMARCK (AP) -- North Dakota's Public Service Commission is asking to participate in a federal lawsuit, filed by two environmental groups, that accuses Commissioners Kevin Cramer and Brian Kalk of accepting improper campaign contributions from the coal industry.

The lawsuit argues that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should take away the state commission's responsibility for regulating North Dakota's coal mining industry because of campaign money that coal interests funneled to the two Republicans. The commission wants to intervene to argue it should be allowed to keep its regulatory duties.

The lawsuit is filed against Salazar, a Democrat. If a judge approves the commission's request, the agency would be allowed to submit its own filings in the case.

An intervention would also entitle the PSC to get copies of filings by the Interior Department and the lawsuit's plaintiffs -- the Dakota Resource Council, a Dickinson-based environmental group, and the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club.

Wayde Schafer, a Sierra Club spokesman in Mandan, said Thursday that if the commission is allowed to participate in the case, North Dakota taxpayers would be paying to defend Cramer and Kalk's decision to take coal industry money for their campaigns.

"It just seems that this is something that Cramer and Kalk should be paying for, since they're the ones who benefited from the contributions," Schafer said. "Why are the North Dakota taxpayers footing the bill to defend that ethical lapse on their part?"

Cramer and Kalk contend the donations are legal and do not violate federal laws that regulate coal mining. The lawsuit contends the commissioners are barred from taking anything of value from companies they regulate.

The Public Service Commission has its own interest in keeping its primary regulatory jurisdiction of North Dakota coal mining and land reclamation, rather than ceding the job to federal officials, Cramer said.

"While the rhetoric ... and the public discussion about the lawsuit has been about campaign contributions, that, of course, is not what it's about at all," Cramer said.

Instead, the lawsuit "is about the Public Service Commission maintaining the reclamation program," Cramer said.

"We have a right to be a party to the case, and to argue our position, because if we weren't there to do it, nobody would be."

The lawsuit highlights contributions made by Houston businessman Corbin Robertson Jr. and his wife, Barbara. Cramer received $15,300 in donations from the Robertsons from 2008 through 2011, while Kalk got $5,500, according to the lawsuit.

Corbin Robertson manages Great Northern Project Development LP of Houston. A subsidiary, South Heart Coal LLC, has been developing a coal mine in rural Stark County in southwestern North Dakota, about 13 miles from the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The company's coal mining application with the PSC is pending.

The Public Service Commission's attempted intervention is being handled by Denver attorney Paul Seby, whom North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem appointed to represent the agency. Seby has represented the state in a dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency over proposed rules to regulate haze from coal-fueled power plants.

The Dakota Resource Council has filed a separate federal lawsuit against the Public Service Commission itself, claiming that the agency has been making its own interpretations of coal mining regulations without approval from the federal Office of Surface Mining.

The second lawsuit does not mention campaign contributions. The Public Service Commission disputes the lawsuit's claims.