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​“Something to hide”

News | October 1st, 2018

BISMARCK – All the usual suspects are opposing Measure 1, the initiated attempt to form an ethics commission that would create transparency into the state’s political system.

On one side, the North Dakotans for Public Integrity, with approximately $340,000 in reported contributions want to establish a five-member commission whose job will be to ban political contributions from foreign government entities, foreign individuals, foreign corporations, restrict lobbyists, and require all campaign finance information to be publicly accessible.

Top donors and supporters of the pro-ethics commission include Represent.Us, Voters Right to Know, End Citizens United Non-Federal, and most recently the organization was endorsed the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization. The remaining financial contributors totaling more than 90 individuals are private donors, their names are included in the Secretary of State’s website.

On the other side, the North Dakotans for Sound Government oppose the measure, and have been scrambling for support waving First Amendment restrictions because they want to protect the secrecy of any funds spent over $200. So far, the organization has raised more than $151,000 in support, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office. Some of their donors include the Basin Electric Power Cooperative with $30,000, the Lignite Energy Council with $25,000, Minnkota Power Cooperative with $30,000, and the North Dakota Petroleum Council with $30,000, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State.

The North Dakotans for Sound Government is newly formed, and is called a “front group” coalition representing at least 40 out-of-state corporations, according to the North Dakotans for Public Integrity.

The group’s main supporters included the ACLU of North Dakota, which has not been active in the state for years, the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, the Bismarck/Mandan Chamber of Commerce, and oil and energy interests, including the North Dakota Petroleum Council, the Lignite Energy Council, the North Dakota Petroleum Marketers, Xcel Energy, and at the end of this list, Rob Port, who in an interview last year said he believes corruption hardly exists in state politics.

When asked by Port to reveal examples of corruption during the Greater North Dakota Chamber Annual Policy Summit in August, Measure 1 founders and sponsors Susan Wefald and Dina Butcher, known under the hashtag #badassgrandmas, declined to give any examples, citing the measure is forward looking and not punitive for past misdeeds.

Instances of possible bribery and corruption within state government exist, and have been documented. In many instances those who have suffered cannot voice their concerns or troubles because politicians responsible for overseeing the reports are involved. Both sides, the wronged and politicians, are at times afraid to speak out, creating an atmosphere of fear and bewilderment on where to go to address grievances.

Since the Bakken oil boom, oil lobbyists have been buying off politicians cheaply compared to other oil-producing states. Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources has “invested” millions in nearly half of the state’s Senate and House of Representatives, with an overwhelming majority being Republicans. Hamm, a private business owner, has also reportedly been interfering within state politics, and became U.S. Congressman Kevin Cramer’s financial chairman last February.

Many complaints filed in court are turned away citing a lack of administrative exhaustion to the all-powerful North Dakota Industrial Commission, responsible for both regulating and promoting the energy sector. In some cases, the state’s Office of the Attorney General has actively protected corporate interests over state citizens, Sarah Vogel, an attorney and former North Dakota Agricultural Commissioner, said.

Since 2011, documented bribery and corruption allegations have been made against former Governor Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, and others, but again, the attempts of those bringing the issues to light were stymied. Officials had allegedly broken laws nobody would investigate.

First, felony bribery charges were thrown out of court. Then signatures for a grand jury proceeding were declared invalid for listing too many post office box addresses. The state legislature lost no time in further hindering any possible means of investigation into the issues at that time by eviscerating citizen grand jury power and increasing the amount of signatures needed to empanel a grand jury.

The same year, former Governor Ed Schafer traversed the state in a painted bus under the guise of “Fix the Tax,” which was meant to garner support for decreasing oil extraction tax revenue from 6.5 to five percent. Schafer first declared his was a nonprofit group, but it was later learned that he was given nearly $1 million worth of shares in Continental Resources, and took a seat on the corporation’s board of directors, losing his seat in 2015.

In what former North Dakota resident Lloyd Ness calls the “Tulsa Two Step,” mineral rights owners are getting fleeced by oil companies excessive natural gas extraction practices, and a system that protects investors into the state’s energy sector, and not its citizens.

Another issue that the High Plains Reader is currently investigating is more shocking. Groups of mineral rights owners have formed throughout the Bakken in an attempt to seek justice for corporate oil threats, bullying, and pushing landowners into complicated legal corners.

Farmers across the state are also worried the state’s Agricultural Commission has changed its investigative strategy, which has led to pardoning pharmaceutical distributors over farmers’ rights. Donald Heitkamp, a longtime farmer of soybeans, wheat, and corn in Richland County, has been fighting the system since 2010 and still has not had his grievances addressed.

“Out-of-state special interests – even foreign companies – are using an avalanche of secret money in an attempt to influence our state elections and government, with no accountability and no concern for the people of North Dakota,” Butcher, the president of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, said. “Measure 1 bans foreign contributions and increases transparency because we have a right to know who is funding our elections and influencing politicians.”

“Who wouldn’t want more transparency and accountability in our state government?” Ellen Chaffee, vice president of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, said. “The only people who fear transparency are those with something to hide.”

Geoff Simon, the chairman for North Dakotans for Sound Government and executive director of the Western Dakota Energy Association, was quoted by Ballotpedia saying: “You’re talking about religious organizations, you’re talking about charities – even individuals. I mean, the example I use is someone who jumps in a farm truck to drive to Bismarck to speak on a bill… but they spend $100 on gas, they stay in a hotel, they eat in a restaurant. Lo and behold, they spend over $200 trying to influence public policy.”

Attempts were made to contact Simon for comment, but he did not return phone calls.

“I think it’s so offensive that they are using a farmer as an example,” Butcher said. “I just find the whole thing to be pandering to fear, and I can’t believe it’s being bought into by people who know better. It’s blatant lying. It’s obfuscation. I think citizens of North Dakota know better than that.”

Opposition to Measure 1 says North Dakotans for Public Integrity seeks to clamp down on free speech. Also lies, Butcher said.

“That is our legal opinion that ours expands freedom of speech,” Butcher said. “I am not sure of the convoluted methods they are using, it is a raw technique used by opposition when they don’t have a leg to stand on.” 

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