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Grand Forks city attorney finds no ethics violation by council member

GRAND FORKS - Actions by Grand Forks City Council member Doug Christensen did not pose a conflict of interest according to state law or city code, according to City Attorney Howard Swanson.

In a letter sent to Mayor Mike Brown on Thursday, Swanson reviewed allegations that Christensen improperly acted in city business he had a stake in but found no evidence for the charges.

Grand Forks resident Doug Marshall asked Swanson for an investigation of Christensen's actions in May, and his allegations are also being investigated by a state Supreme Court disciplinary board.

Christensen said he felt "100 percent exonerated" by the letter.

"Mr. Swanson has taken an extraordinary amount of time to investigate these allegations," he said. "After a thorough investigation, there's nothing to support any of the allegations."

Marshall did not comment on Swanson's review of the allegations, but said the Supreme Court investigation of Christensen was going forward.

No violations

In a May letter to Swanson, Marshall outlined several matters of city business involving companies represented by Christensen, who is an attorney, or by attorneys in his firm, Pearson, Christensen & Clapp.

In those cases, involving applications for tax incentives or state-subsidized economic development loans, Christensen voted in favor of the applications when he should have abstained, Marshall wrote.

Swanson's letter said, according to state law, Christensen's relationship with the businesses did not represent a direct interest for Christensen and that he had no financial stake in the applications he acted on.

He also wrote that the city ethics policy does not prohibit council members from acting on matters involving members of his law firm. In one matter in which Christensen represented engineering firm AE2S, he did not provide any legal services with regard to application for a tax incentive nor did he have a financial interest in the mater.

In all the incidents, Swanson wrote that he found "no factual basis to conclude" violations of state law or the Grand Forks City Council's code of ethics for city officials.

State investigation

Swanson wrote that his review of the allegations did not address any possible violations of state rules of professional conduct for attorneys.

According to Marshall, a committee with the Supreme Court's disciplinary board is looking into his claims about Christensen, and an attorney acting as its investigator will produce a report on them near the end of the month.

Frustrated by what he saw as Swanson's lack of response to his May letter, Marshall, an attorney, consultant and former University of North Dakota aviation professor, sent copies of his letter to the state attorney general's office and the Supreme Court's disciplinary board.

While the attorney general's office said it did not have jurisdiction, the court's board said it would investigate.

"Now it's in the hands of the Supreme Court," Marshall said.