Fulfilling voter-approved ethics reform up to commission

BISMARCK (AP) — Powerful Republicans in North Dakota’s Legislature got the ethics reform they wanted this session. Whether it will come close to what Democrats and others wanted after voters endorsed the idea in 2018 will be determined largely by the commission now being assembled to oversee the conduct of legislators, statewide officials, candidates and lobbyists.
Applications for the five-member commission are being taken until May 24. About two dozen people had expressed interest in serving as of late last week. Applicants include former lawmakers, lawyers, a farmer, an American Indian elder and several lobbyists who say they will quit their jobs if selected.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman said it will be crucial to have the right mix of people on the panel. Lawmakers and people registered as lobbyists may not sit on the panel.
“They have been given a lot of responsibility, and they have a big responsibility to get it right,” she said. “It’s not an issue what party they are from. These are going to have to be great people who understand the pressure of the commission’s job and are able to make good, solid decisions.”
Heckaman, Republican Senate Majority Rich Wardner and GOP Gov. Doug Burgum must agree by consensus on who sits on the panel, which is expected to be chosen by July 1.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor won’t comment on the panel’s makeup because “he doesn’t want to limit those who might be thinking about applying.”
Dana Brandenburg, a farmer from Jud in southeastern North Dakota, believes he’s as qualified as anyone to serve on the panel, and he won’t be doing it for the money.
Commission members will be paid a daily rate of $181 when meeting, or the same as lawmakers.
“I’ve always treated people fairly and I think I know right and wrong as well as anyone,” said Brandenburg, who ran as an independent for lieutenant governor in 2008.
“I think they need somebody out here from the working world,” said Brandenburg, whose town has about 70 residents and a local telephone book that lists residents by their first names first.
Wardner, like Heckaman, said they will consider candidates for their ethical principles and not political leanings.
“I just want five people with integrity,” Wardner said. “I don’t want someone who will be out headhunting or who has an agenda.”
The legislative leaders said ideal candidates would have significant knowledge of government and law.
“I think the three of us can come to consensus,” Wardner said.
Wardner and House counterpart Chet Pollert were the primary sponsors of the GOP bill signed by Burgum on Thursday. Lawmakers for months considered competing Republican and Democratic proposals before choosing the GOP version, which backers of the citizen initiative say may be unconstitutional.
The GOP version was telegraphed for passage from the start, even after much debate in both chambers dozens of amendments, said Dina Butcher, a Republican and spokeswoman for North Dakotans for Public Integrity, the group behind the constitutional amendment to toughen ethics rules.
“(Republicans) had an end in mind — it was pretty much a done deal,” she said. “Even with all the ‘changes’ it hasn’t changed that much.”
Butcher said a potential lawsuit is on hold at least until it becomes clear how the commission will implement the legislation.
Ellen Chaffee, a Democrat who co-chairs the group that sponsored the initiative, said they’re encouraged at the quality of applicants.
Greg Stites, an attorney who worked with measure supporters, is among the applicants. Stites has called the GOP bill unconstitutional and says it doesn’t reflect voters’ intent.
Stites, in an email, said he has resigned his position as a lobbyist.