Legislators request study of corn group policies

FARGO -- North Dakota state legislators say they are planning to look into the governance of North Dakota corn groups in the wake of the abrupt resignation of its executive. Tom Lilja, who was executive director of the North Dakota Corn Utilizati...


FARGO  -- North Dakota state legislators say they are planning to look into the governance of North Dakota corn groups in the wake of the abrupt resignation of its executive.

Tom Lilja, who was executive director of the North Dakota Corn Utilization Council and the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, resigned late last month.

Then earlier this month,  Lilja responded to his resignation with a letter to board members, in which he said his management issues were complicated by board member conflicts-of-interest and alleged improper use of grower lists for private ethanol and fertilizer project investments. Also, Lilja said the combined boards of more than 31 members are too large and should have effective term limits.


After Lilja’s letter,  Wallie Hardie of Fairmount, N.D., a former state president of both groups and a former National Corn Growers Association president, resigned after years on the board even though members voted to decline his resignation.

State Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, a minority leader in the Legislatures and chairman of the Legislature's interim committee on agriculture, said because of the turmoil he’s “going to ask legislative management if this is in our purview to look at in the interim."

Onstad said the corn utilization council is a public body and collects check-off funds which must be approved by the Legislature.

The panel holds its first meeting in November

Onstad said he's not concerned about the number of board members but wonders whether there should be more separation of activities between the council, which is classically designed to fund research and promotion, and the growers association, which is a government policy advocacy group supported by membership funds.

"I just think about how dollars are being spent, and is there a conflict of interest with some of the  people," Onstad said, referring to board members.

State Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, also a farmer, said he wants the groups reviewed.

"I think they've made some serious errors," Brandenburg said, regarding the departure of Lilja who he described as a "top-notch lobbyist who represented the growers in an excellent, professional manner."


Brandenburg said some corn growers have asked him whether the boards shouldn't be smaller and why they have to have separate boards at all, and have asked the same thing about soybean groups.

State Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, who described himself as a friend of Lilja's, said he's concerned the two groups "do not seem to have any separation" and wonders whether each needs its own executive. He said it's "a bit troubling" that members can rotate for extended periods between the organizations but he hopes it won't take legislative action and they'll "fix it themselves."

He also said he "knows that (Lilja) was forced out" and the groups haven't acknowledged that.

State Sen. Joe Miller, who has been the agriculture chairman in the past two regular sessions, said he hasn't heard of any discussions taking action on the number or terms of corn group members. "I think that's a matter they can handle, and should," he said.

He doesn't want to "exclude" a long-standing member if they have "desire to be involved."

The NDCUC position was posted July 23 and is open for applicants until Aug. 23. The salary range is $85,000 to $115,000 per year and includes policy responsibilities. A bachelor's degree and two years of agriculture-related experience in the legislative process are important, according to the posting.

Blair Thoreson, the office manager for the organization since last July, has been a Republican state representative since 1999 representing District 44 in Fargo. Thoreson said he hadn't seen the job posting and didn't know whether he would apply for the full-time position.

Brandenburg described Thoreson as having been good for the corn groups as a business manager, but also was the "eyes and ears in Bismarck" for the organization.


"They're getting their money's worth out of Blair," Brandenburg said, citing the group's success for attracting a national genotyping center and for ethanol-related issues. Brandenburg said he understood the Legislative Council had been consulted about whether there were any problems with Thoreson working for the council while serving in the legislature.

The "i's were dotted and the t's were crossed," Brandenburg said, adding the groups "wanted to make sure he wasn't violating any laws."

Onstad said regardless of the legalities, he thought it would be "hard not to take any kind of position and not be (in) a conflict of interest" for a legislator. He added, however, there are other similar apparent conflicts, including state university employees. Specifically he noted that Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, is also executive director of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties and the North Dakota Coal Conversion Counties Association.

"Maybe the whole gambit needs to be looked at," Onstad said, regarding legislative conflicts.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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