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Gulleson urges Cramer to return 'unethical donations'

FARGO -- The Democratic candidate for North Dakota's U.S. House seat is calling on her opponent to end a controversy over what she says are unethical and potentially illegal campaign contributions.

At a news conference Wednesday, Pam Gulleson said Republican Kevin Cramer should answer for a "personal decision" he made to accept donations from interests he regulates as a state public service commissioner.

"The right and ethical thing to do is give them back," Gulleson said.

The November election will determine whether Cramer, Gulleson or Fargo libertarian Eric Olson will be North Dakota's next U.S. representative.

"(Cramer has) put himself in a position of asking for further trust from the citizens of North Dakota, and I don't think he warrants it," Gulleson said.

For weeks, North Dakota Democrats -- in particular, PSC candidate Brad Crabtree -- have lambasted Cramer and fellow Commissioner Brian Kalk for accepting donations from energy interests regulated by the three-member PSC.

Wednesday was the first time Gulleson publicly weighed in on the issue.

"I've followed this closely," she said, "and I think more questions should be addressed."

Gulleson's campaign said Cramer has accepted $36,500 in state contributions and $27,500 in federal contributions from interests he regulates. Gulleson said her own campaign contributions are transparent and in line with federal requirements.

"My funds are held up to scrutiny each and every day, and I'm willing to defend them," she said. "But it's a very different thing: I'm not a regulator."

Both Kalk and Cramer have said repeatedly that the donations -- like all others they receive -- are a reflection of their values and donors' free speech. They both deny claims that the money influenced their decision-making.

Nonetheless, the controversy is a target of two pending federal lawsuits.

In one case, the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental advocacy group, and the state's chapter of the Sierra Club are seeking to have the Public Service Commission stripped of its oversight on coal mining.

In a separate lawsuit, the Dakota Resource Council accused the PSC of not complying with several federal requirements in the way it regulated mining.

While Gulleson said Cramer and Kalk should be held accountable for the donations they accepted, she said she doesn't agree the PSC should have its oversight power taken away.

"It's a personal mistake, not one of their public office," Gulleson said.

Gulleson said North Dakota taxpayers should also not be responsible for paying for Cramer's and Kalk's legal defense in the two lawsuits. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem appointed a Denver-based law firm to represent Kalk and Cramer in U.S. District Court.

North Dakota law allows state agencies to request the appointment of outside counsel, which can then be appointed as a special assistant attorney general, said Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Attorney General's Office.