Voters to decide whether North Dakota needs ethics watchdog

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Supporters of a constitutional amendment to overhaul North Dakota's government ethics have been told they have a solution in search of a problem and they can't point to any scandal that would justify the measure. Ellen Chaffee disagrees.

"Scandal is in the eye of the beholder," said Chaffee, co-chairwoman of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, a bipartisan group sponsoring the initiative. "There are a lot of people who think $37,000 is a lot of money."

Chaffee was referring to Gov. Doug Burgum's repayment of costs after he attended this year's Super Bowl as a guest of a Minneapolis utility. The utility, Xcel Energy, offered perks including tickets to a rock concert, private parties, meals and other events.

Chaffee, a Democrat, and co-chairwoman Dina Butcher, a Republican, believe there have been other such incidents over the years that have gone unreported. They think there should be an independent ethics commission to review those cases. Opponents argue the proposal is poorly worded and there are enough safeguards in place to monitor government, including a new policy recently released by Burgum.

"Most of the things they are purporting to do with the measure are already in state law," said Republican state Rep. Shannon Roers-Jones, an attorney from West Fargo. She cited regulations on foreign contributions, personal use of campaign funds and reporting requirements for donations.

Burgum's office unveiled its ethics policy in mid-October, which spokesman Mike Nowatzki said "was in the works at Gov. Burgum's request well before the Super Bowl" and addresses similar situations "going forward." The edict covers conflicts of interest, gifts, expenses and political activities involving the governor, lieutenant governor and all governor's office employees.

Chaffee said she welcomes the move but it "does not meet state government's serious need for objective, professional ethics guidance and accountability across the board." Butcher said that while Burgum didn't do anything illegal he was likely "following previous examples" and "perhaps his predecessors enjoyed those types of things."

Opponents are worried that the law would hurt people who don't hold office. Roers-Jones said the "outrageously broad disclosure language" would require invasive reporting from advertisers, subscribers, parishioners and donors.

The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the measure, saying it is poorly written and risks restricting political speech and advocacy. The Greater North Dakota Chamber, the state's largest business organization, has worked against the measure. The Chamber said it is too broadly worded and would be difficult to comply with.

The measure would also restrict lobbying, including forcing public officials to wait two years after leaving office to become a lobbyist. Chaffee noted that when she tried to find out about spending by lobbyists, the reports were not available online and she had to pay $118 for hard copies that were sent through the mail.

"The people deserve to know who is spending money to influence their votes and the behavior of their public officials," Chaffee said. "They have made it too difficult for citizens to access that."

Dennis Cooley, professor of ethics and philosophy at North Dakota State University, said people complaining about how the measure is written are being "a little bit dishonest" because they are not offering an alternative. The Legislature has rejected several attempts by Democratic lawmakers to establish an ethics commission, including in the last session.

"There were huge opportunities to write this in a way that worked and it wasn't done," Cooley said.

Roers said she could have gotten behind the measure if it just asked whether residents liked the idea of an ethics commission.

"It's always a question of how it's done," she said. "This just takes that idea and jumps off a cliff with it."

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