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Tax Commissioner Cory Fong resigns to work for Odney ad firm

BISMARCK -- State Tax Commissioner Cory Fong said Tuesday his decision to leave the post one year before his term expires so he can take a job in the private sector came down to timing.

"The opportunity won't exist in a year's time," he said.

Fong submitted his resignation letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Tuesday morning. His last day in the job will be Dec. 31.

In January, he will join the Bismarck-based advertising, marketing and public relations firm Odney, where he will represent local businesses, help them navigate governments and lobby on their behalf during legislative sessions, he said.

With lawmakers next scheduled to convene in January 2015, Fong said Odney wanted someone who could work with clients in advance of the session.

"It just wouldn't have been possible for me to do this had it been a year from now," he said. "The opportunity would not have presented itself."

Dalrymple issued a statement calling Fong "an outstanding public servant" who oversaw the administration of record tax relief for North Dakota residents during his eight years in office.

"While I'm sorry to learn that Cory will leave office, I understand and support him in his decision to pursue new opportunities in the private sector," Dalrymple said.

Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent said the governor will provide details in a day or two about his plan for appointing someone to serve out the final year of Fong's term.

Fong, a Republican, was appointed tax commissioner in 2005 by then-Gov. John Hoeven. He won his first four-year term in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010.

At Odney, Fong will work closely with another Hoeven-appointed commissioner who resigned his post before his term expired and later joined Odney.

Former Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle resigned in December 2010 to become Hoeven's state director after Hoeven was elected to the U.S. Senate. Goettle stayed in the job through fall 2011. After a failed bid for the GOP endorsement for the U.S. House race in early 2012, Goettle went to work for Odney's new lobbying division, which starting in January will also employ Fong.

Fong said his goal in working with Goettle will be "to create the premier public affairs agency in the state." His clientele will include companies related to the state's booming energy industry, he said.

"With all the business activity that's going on and all the new businesses that are trying to find out what their niche is in North Dakota, there's a lot of opportunity for this," he said.

Chad Oban, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said Fong's decision to leave office before his term expires "isn't entirely surprising" and follows a trend of state Republican officials who have done the same, including former Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman and former Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark.

"This isn't a job that just came open," Oban said of Fong's new role. "It's a job that's been created, and why they can't wait until their terms are done is beyond me. If you were a cynical person, you'd look at this and think, boy, they're going to appoint somebody new who gets a year of incumbency under their belt before having to seek re-election in November of 2014.

"I just think that these statewide officials owe it to the people of North Dakota to fulfill the terms they run for."

Fong said he believes his exit at year's end will allow the governor to appoint someone who will have a good opportunity to build a campaign before November 2014.

"Actually, I think this is pretty good timing to make sure we have a good candidate going into the next election cycle," he said.

Oban said the lack of an elected incumbents should help Democrats' chances of picking up the post next year.

"I've already been contacted in the last hour by some folks expressing interest in running for tax commissioner that probably were less likely to do it versus an incumbent," he said.

Fong said he believes his deputy tax commissioner since 2009, Ryan Rauschenberger, is "well-suited" for the commissioner's job. Rauschenberger said Tuesday he hasn't discussed the job with the governor or made a decision about whether to pursue it.

"I am definitely considering it," he said.

North Dakota's tax commissioner is paid an annual salary of $105,050, which will increase to $108,202 next July.

Odney, which has offices in Bismarck, Minot, Fargo and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, has handled ad campaigns for a number of state Republican candidates. The firm's president, Pat Finken, has made more than $37,000 in campaign contributions to Republican campaigns and groups in North Dakota since 2008, according to disclosure reports on the secretary of state's website. The contributions included $1,000 in 2010 and $500 in 2009 to Friends of Cory Fong.

In an emailed statement Tuesday from Odney's newly hired director of strategic engagement, Rick Collin -- a former communications director for former Gov. Ed Schafer and deputy state director for former U.S. Rep. Rick Berg -- Finken said Fong's "in-depth knowledge of North Dakota business and government will be a great asset to us as we help new and existing businesses grow and prosper."

Before being appointed state tax commissioner, Fong served as deputy commerce commissioner, deputy secretary of state and deputy director of the state Republican Party. He also directed Hoeven's first successful re-election campaign for governor in 2004.

Fong said his upcoming private-sector experience should help him if he ever decides to run for public office again, something he hasn't ruled out.

"I never say never, but for now it's time to do something else," he said.