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Commentary: No longer should the fox guard the henhouse

Jim Shaw

FARGO — In North Dakota, ethics are optional for our elected leaders. There's nothing to stop them from unethical behavior, which has become all too common and accepted. Thus,...

— It's time to pass Constitutional Measure Number 1. The system in North Dakota is corrupt. There's too much influence of money and lobbyists, with nothing to stop it. Legislators and other elected officials have their hands out, and enthusiastically accept free trips, gifts, discounts and meals. Some lawmakers go through an entire four-month session without having to buy their own dinners. Commissioners disgracefully accept money from companies they are supposed to be regulating.

That's why this measure is needed. An ethics commission would be established. North Dakota is one of only seven states without such a commission. There would be more detailed and quicker reporting of campaign contributions, public officials couldn't become lobbyists until two years after leaving office, there would be no more freebies, and tougher conflict of interest laws.

There will be no more $37,000 trips to the Superbowl for our governors. Gov. Doug Burgum paid that back to Xcel Energy, but only after The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead broke the story. Burgum did not do anything illegal. It was only public pressure that forced him to reimburse Xcel.

Likewise, when Kevin Cramer and Brian Kalk were public service commissioners they clearly had conflicts of interest. They willingly took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a coal mining company they were making decisions about. That sure didn't pass the smell test.

The matter went to court, where U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland said the contributions were legal, but he also gave Cramer and Kalk a written spanking. Hovland wrote, "Although the acceptance of campaign contributions from such entities may be lawful...the decision to do so is ill-advised, devoid of common sense, and raises legitimate questions as to the appearance of impropriety." If Measure Number 1 passes, those contributions would be illegal.

In neighboring Minnesota, none of this behavior is allowed. Legislators can't accept free dinners, free trips or free tickets. There's also an ethics committee that investigates lawmaker misconduct.

It would also be nice if North Dakota's ethics commission could look into the personal conduct of elected officials. In recent years, lawmakers committed domestic violence, drove drunk, didn't pay taxes and sent an unsolicited photo of a penis to an adult website. The Legislature did nothing.

Opponents of the measure say it's an out-of-state issue. Not true. The measure was sponsored and written by 25 North Dakotans from the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties. About 100 North Dakota residents obtained the signatures, and it was signed by almost 37,000 state residents.

Some lawmakers say it's not needed. Sure, let's have the fox continue to guard the henhouse. The fact is, it's long past time to clean up the corruption in North Dakota government.

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