Oil decision cited in need for state ethics commission
BISMARCK -- David Schwalbe believes he "did not get his day" to be heard and "had no place to go" in 2011 after he says a decision by the state Industrial Commission left him with inadequate royalty payments from two oil wells on property he owns in Dunn County.
Schwalbe, of Bismarck, is one of many that was affected by the Industrial Commission's decision to approve the 30,000-acre mega-unit oil development in Dunn County. The decision prompted a petition drive in Dunn County for a grand jury investigation of more than $81,600 in campaign contributions from donors connected to the oil industry to the commission's chairman, Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
The petition asserted that the donations were forms of bribery to help approve the project, which Dalrymple's campaign called "baseless."
Schwalbe told his story to the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday to illustrate the need for a state ethics commission that would hear ethical and legal complaints from citizens regarding state elected officials.
"An ethics commission would have been a perfect venue for us to go to," Schwalbe said. "None of us want to be involved with this, but we have no other choice."
Drafted by Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, House Bill 1442 would create a nine-person committee, to act as its own grand jury, comprised of three Republicans, three Democrats and three judicial branch members, to hear and provide recommendations to a state's attorney or attorney general regarding a complaint filed about an elected official.
The idea for the commission came after a study by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization, which gave the state a failing grade overall when looking at 12 different areas. Those include state civil service managing, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement agencies. It did give the state an A grade for procurement and internal auditing.
North Dakota is one of three states that does not have a form of ethics commission.
The bill would provide more oversight over elected officials and allow an individual to file a complaint without having to go through a costly legal battle, Mock said.
Schwalbe said he is involved in a second Dunn County petition, although he said he would rather not be, and more than $10,000 in attorney costs have dug into his pocket.
Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, and other committee members, questioned the study and its portrayal of the state's laws and government.
He said the idea of the commission is based on potential violations, as very few have occurred in North Dakota.
"I can't find more than 10 instances of political corruption concerns," he said afterward.
He asked Mock whether he thought there was a statewide corruption issue.
"I'm proud to serve and know we do have a high code of conduct, however indiscretion has happened in the past, but we may never know unless we have commission," Mock answered.
Mock said without oversight, nobody knows whether somebody committed an ethical violation or broke the law. "We can put minds at ease knowing we are holding ourselves accountable," he said.
Rep. Gail Mooney, D-Cummings, said the commission would give everyone -- voters and elected officials -- a level playing field.
"I wish for there to be a way for people who work for us to keep themselves accountable," she said. "I don't think it's an unreasonable request in the 21st century."