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ND ethics measure opponents call it 'witch hunt'

Ethics Measure panelists were, from left, Susan Wefald, founder of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, Dina Butcher, president of North Dakota for Public Integrity, Geoff Simon, executive director of Western Dakota Energy Association and Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, chairman of the Government & Veterans Affairs Committee. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Opponents of an initiated measure aimed at improving ethics in state government criticized the effort as a "witch hunt," while the measure's committee members say it would improve accountability.

Dina Butcher and Susan Wefald, of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, debated Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, and Geoff Simon, executive director of the Western Dakota Energy Association, over Measure 1, set for North Dakota's November ballot. The Greater North Dakota Chamber policy summit hosted the discussion.

Kasper and Simon pointed out what they see as flaws in the constitutional measure, from redundancy and incompatibility with what's already on the books to the measure's "poor" language" and effects they say its disclosure provisions and oversight commission could have.

"One thing I observe about the political process, wherever I go, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Simon said. "We don't need this in North Dakota."

He invoked provisions in state law and rules for lawmakers already in place.

Kasper said he expects the measure to "go down in flames," leading him to draft his own bill for the 2019 session related to ethics oversight. He said the bill would enact a statute for bipartisan House and Senate ethics commissions made up of their members to formally address complaints against legislators.

He also described the measure as "a witch hunt with the kind of language that is there."

"This is not what the people of North Dakota want. They do not understand what the measure will do," Kasper said, pointing to "unlimited power" an ethics commission would have under the measure's language.

"If they decide to go and do an exploration against a sitting governor, they can do it. There's nothing that stops them," he said.

Butcher argued the Legislature would have "a large role" in establishing rules for an ethics commission, whose five members would be appointed by the governor and Senate majority and minority leaders.

Wefald said an ethics commission would be helpful to lawmakers and state officials as she — once a public service commissioner — sought clarification from Legislative Council regarding meals and trips offered by lobbyists.

Simon questioned whether every meal even matters.

"What's wrong with buying a legislator a cup of coffee or a burger in a cafeteria?" he said. "What's wrong with that? You're not buying votes for a $10 meal, for crying out loud."

Discussion also meandered into the structure of the measure. Butcher said the group aimed for a constitutional measure after a similar, statutory effort fizzled in South Dakota. Kasper criticized its "poor" wording and drafting that he said could lead to civil or criminal consequences for those accused of "unfounded" ethics violations.

Wefald said she doesn't understand Kasper's conclusion based on the measure's language. She also said several "outside organizations" have studied North Dakota's ethics laws and found room for improvement, referencing that most other states have ethics commissions.

Toward the end of the discussion, Butcher criticized the opponents' "obfuscation" and invoked the 36,000 state residents who signed petitions for the ballot measure.

"We just feel that having heard from enough people to know that there are reasons that we need this kind of transparency," Wefald said.

"This is a very bad measure," Kasper responded. "It changes our constitutional dramatically. It is not needed."

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