BISMARCK-North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum reimbursed Xcel Energy $37,000 for Super Bowl tickets in an effort to "eliminate even the perception of any conflict," he said Wednesday, Feb. 7.
The announcement came after news that Burgum would attend Sunday's game in Minneapolis with his wife, Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, as guests of Xcel Energy but wouldn't pay for tickets.
"At the end of the day, I am fully confident I've kept the best interests of North Dakotans at the heart and forefront of everything I do," Burgum said in a statement. "And while I recognize some may feel differently, I know with certainty that tickets to a sporting event have not influenced, and will not influence, my decision-making as governor."
Burgum said he had "constructive conversations with top Xcel executives" and expressed his "strong desire for Xcel to invest additional capital in their North Dakota markets." Xcel said the governor met with CEO Ben Fowke and Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy-Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, along with other company leaders in a suite at US Bank Stadium.
Meanwhile, Burgum's legal counsel is crafting an ethics policy covering North Dakota's chief executive and his staff. The governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the ethics policy has been in the works "for a while."
"There wasn't (an ethics policy) when we got here," he said.
Nowatzki said he didn't know whether the policy would prevent accepting tickets for sporting events. Burgum, a Republican and wealthy former software executive who was first elected in 2016, paid his own travel expenses and stayed with his sister, Nowatzki said.
Xcel was one of the sponsors of the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee that put on the event, and tickets to the game were part of the corporate sponsorship. The company said its sponsorship wasn't funded by customer dollars.
Xcel, which said it's the largest utility in North Dakota, is headquartered in Minneapolis and provides electric service to almost 94,000 customers in North Dakota, according to Public Service Commission documents from May 2017. It provides natural gas service to more than 55,000 customers in the state.
In a statement, Xcel said it was "pleased" Burgum and the first lady "joined us during the game." It said it values "relationships with elected officials and our role in helping advance investment and development in the state."
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he didn't think Burgum would be improperly influenced by Xcel but "it's the perception of the whole thing." Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said he paid $6,000 for his own ticket.
The Super Bowl trip will likely be highlighted by supporters of a proposed ballot measure to insert anti-corruption policies into the North Dakota Constitution. Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, a New Rockford Democrat who's "generally" supportive of the proposed measure, said it "points to the need for an ethics commission in the state of North Dakota."
Wardner said the ethics commission proposal is a "solution looking for a problem." The North Dakota Constitution already prevents the governor from receiving "any bribe" to influence their "official opinion, judgment, or action."
Xcel is regulated by the state's Public Service Commission, which isn't under the governor's office. Burgum appointed a new member to the commission last year to fill a vacancy.