BISMARCK — North Dakota's Ethics Commission has released proposed rules that would govern how state officials handle conflicts of interest, but leaders of the 2018 ballot measure that established the panel aren't on board with the plans.
The proposed rules advanced by the five-member commission last month would require public officials to disclose any conflicts, including family relationships or financial interests, before acting or voting on a matter. An official with a declared conflict of interest wouldn't be disqualified from acting on the issue unless "the independence of judgment of a reasonable person in the public official’s situation would be materially affected."
The rules haven't been finalized, and the commission urges members of the public to send feedback on the proposal to firstname.lastname@example.org until Dec. 10. Advocacy group North Dakotans for Public Integrity publicly aired its criticisms of the rules during a press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 23.
The central concern voiced by Dina Butcher and Ellen Chaffee, the organization's president and vice president, is that legal campaign donations would not be considered a "significant financial interest" that could affect an official's judgment.
For example, state lawmakers would not have to publicly disclose that they received campaign donations from an agriculture lobbying firm during a discussion of tax breaks for farmers — nor would they have to abstain from voting on the legislation. The group believes officials who received campaign contributions from stakeholding groups should be required to recuse themselves from acting on the matter.
Butcher and Chaffee allege the rules' exemption of campaign contributions goes against the state Constitution, adding that North Dakota's political system and culture needs to change so powerful corporations and people have less influence over decision-making in Bismarck.
Chaffee said regulated entities should stop offering campaign contributions, and officials should stop taking them, though she acknowledged the commission could establish a low dollar figure that would not be considered a conflict of interest if accepted as a donation.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Dave Thiele said the panel has talked about campaign donations and recognizes the "appearance problem" that arises when officials receive funding from an entity they're regulating, but he said it would likely violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to require officials to recuse themselves over legally obtained campaign funds. The commission has asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for an opinion on the matter.
Thiele noted that it's unrealistic to expect candidates running for office to turn down campaign donations when they're trying to win elections. He added that even if candidates rejected money directly offered by donors, political action committees could promote them independently without going through their official campaign accounts.
Gov. Doug Burgum, a wealthy former tech executive, streamed more than $3.2 million last year into a political committee that put out mailers and other promotional materials in support of several candidates, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler and recently elected Treasurer Thomas Beadle.
The commission will consider the public's input on the proposed rules at its Dec. 15 meeting.