Ethics of the 1900s no longer good enough

In a study of state governments, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan organization of investigative journalists, gave North Dakota a big fat “F” for its failure to protect the integrity of its governmental processes.

The Center looked at lobbyists, conflicts of interest, transparency and ethics in government. North Dakota governments were found to be vulnerable on all points.

Various proposals to plug the gaps have died a quick death in the last four sessions of the state Legislature. This stonewalling has spurred the bipartisan North Dakotans for Public Integrity, co-chaired by Dina Butcher (R) and Ellen Chaffee (D), to launch a petition campaign to put the issue before the people in the November election.

The measure proposes to amend the state constitution so that a hostile Legislature would be unable to set aside a vote of the people. Polls show that most parts of the sweeping amendment have the support of 75 percent of the citizenry.

Relating to lobbyists and conflicts of interest, the object of the measure is to reduce the influence of money in campaigns, restrict lobbyists’ gifts, and disallow personal use of campaign funds.

On the question of transparency, the measure would require accurate, quick reporting of all campaign contributions over $200. Present reporting is slow, incomplete and late.

An ethics commission, appointed by the governor and senator leaders from both parties, would define “ethical” and exclude lobbyists, elected officials, and party leaders from appointment for four years.

The authority to define ethics will be difficult but important. At the present time, our whole society – including state officials – are being charged with sexual assault. A handful of public employees are abusing travel privileges.

Lobbyists hustle lawmakers and regulators by showering favors, such as junkets, game tickets and “good times.”

Lobbyists find that these activities yield an incredible return in favorable decisions.

The measure contemplates protection of whistleblowers, those folks who are tired of seeing abuse in the public sector and risk losing their jobs for speaking out.

When integrity proposals have been introduced in the Legislature, a common chorus has risen to the rafters: “North Dakota people are honest; we have no corruption or fraud. This legislation solves a problem that doesn’t exist.”

While we may extoll North Dakota’s claim of innate integrity, it simply doesn’t stand the test of history. Human beings fail in North Dakota as well as in Missouri, New York and New Jersey.

At one time travel vouchers had to be counter-signed by the governor. As his administrative assistant, it fell to me to administer this duty. In the process, we found two elected state officials cheating on travel expenses, even claiming reimbursement for trips never taken.

Right now, we have men in government, business and entertainment who have lost their jobs and respect when discovered to be guilty of sexual assault. Sex assault is no longer tolerated.

While the large majority of state employees respect the parameters, I’ll bet that at least 10 female employees are experiencing some form of sexual assault today. As long as there is no vehicle, such as an ethics commission, to protect them they are forced to keep quiet.

In summary, the things that were acceptable in the 1900s are no longer tolerable. North Dakota governments are due for a review and a revision of ethics.

Sponsored by North Dakotans for Public Integrity, the constitutional amendment was hammered out in a year of weekly discussions by an ad hoc committee of 14 advised by several attorneys. It is a sound proposal.

According to Co-Chairs Butcher and Chaffee, the petition drive is being welcomed by citizens. Their only problem will be sufficient funding for an educational campaign. “Integrity” doesn’t reach into the deep pockets.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.