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Groups: Commissioner contributions a conflict

Public Service commissioners Brian Kalk and Kevin Cramer should recuse themselves from decisions regarding a South Heart coal mine project because of campaign contributions they received, four organizations said in letters hand delivered to the two Friday.

Though Cramer and Kalk had not seen the letters Friday afternoon, they do not deny accepting the contributions. However, they say they make balanced decisions based on the information, records and facts and not on money.

"If we recused ourselves from every decision because someone might be affected by it, we wouldn't make decisions," Cramer said.

Mary Hodell of Neighbors United disagrees and says the two are not capable of making unbiased decisions because of the money hanging over their heads.

Along with Neighbors United, the Dakota Resource Council, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Dacotah Chapter of Sierra Club are named on the letter.

They cite a PSC policy: "A conflict would arise when the commissioner, the employee or agent, any member or his immediate family, his partner or an individual firm or organization which employs or is about employ the commissioner, commission employee, his immediate family member, or partner has a financial or other interest directly and substantially affected by the commission decision."

Kalk said the funds he receives do not hold weight and have never affected his decision-making.

"We receive support from lots of different entities, including those in energy and conservation," he said.

Cramer agrees.

"We make many decisions that affect the people of our state," Cramer said. "You could pick just about anyone and say they were affected positively, negatively or otherwise by decisions."

According to the letters, in the last three years Cramer has received at least $11,150 from parties with direct financial interests in the South Heart Coal, LLC development of a proposed mine and facilities near the town.

"If I gave someone $10,000 I would expect something in return," Hodell said. "I feel there is a certain loyalty to the other side and there have been exceptions made. We have pointed out this conflict of interesting in writing during written comment periods for the project before and felt it was necessary to write the letters and call attention to the conflict."

One Cramer contributor, Corbin Robertson, the managing partner of the entity that owns Great Northern Power Development of which South Heart Coal is a subsidiary, is the source of $10,300 of those funds, according to the


Cramer said he has not met Robertson.

Other Cramer supporters cited as conflicts of interest are Brian Bjella, counsel to GTL Energy, Robert French, GTL Energy CEO, and Barbara Robertson, Corbin Robertson's wife.

Robertson's donations made up more than 3 percent of Kalk's $159,836 campaign funds in 2008, according to the letter.

The letter also states, "To put this in perspective, a supporter who contributed the same percentage of Obama's 2008 campaign funds would have donated over $25 million."

Hodell said she has not heard back from Kalk, Cramer or their offices.

The proposed mine has drawn objections from some neighboring landowners who say it would affect water supplies and land uses.

Opponents also dislike the project's closeness to the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is about 13 miles west.

The PSC deemed the mining application complete in January even though the PSC found hundreds of deficiencies in previous applications, according to previous Press articles.

Both the PSC and South Heart Coal LLC say finding and correcting the deficiencies and resubmitting the application is an ordinary process.

The Public Service Commission has scheduled two public hearings on the project to be held at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on June 28 at Dickinson State University's Beck Auditorium.

The commission has also been asked to schedule a formal hearing on the mine application, which will allow opponents to directly question the developers.