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Measure 1 supporters say lobbyist reports bolster their case

FARGO — When the North Dakota Legislature is in session, lobbyists and groups they represent frequently hold afterhours events where lawmakers eat free nearly every weeknight.

During the interim, lobbyists fund golf tournaments and trips for lawmakers.

Yet out of the 501 registered lobbyists in fiscal year 2017, only 11 filed an expenditure report, as they must when spending more than $60 on any single occasion, supporters of Measure 1 said Friday, Oct. 19.

One lobbyist reported dinners for entire committees but paid only about $100 for each dinner, with two exceptions where he spent $200 and $387, Measure 1 supporters said.

"I've been told by a lot of my Republican friends that Measure 1 is a solution looking for a problem," said Dina Butcher, a Republican and chairwoman of the measure's sponsoring committee. "We are here today to talk about how that's not true. We have the problem."

Measure 1 would amend the state constitution, requiring full disclosure of all spending meant to influence elections or government, including what many call "dark money." It would ban gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers. And it would create an ethics committee to investigate violations.

Critics say none of this is necessary because there is no corruption to expose or investigate.

"We've got a citizen legislature, a part-time citizen legislature — very few people in our state. If somebody did do something 'unethical' they get routed out. They're gone," said Geoff Simon, chairman of North Dakotans for Sound Government, an opposition group that includes many business interests. "You've got to be honest if you're going to be part of the lobbying process and the same for our elected leaders. If they try anything — it's kind of a self-policing system."

Other opponents of Measure 1 include the North Dakota Catholic Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota.

Paying for dinner

To see if their critics are right about the measure not being needed, supporters requested lobbyists' expenditure reports from the state, according to Ellen Chaffee, the sponsoring committee's vice chairwoman and a Democrat. Unlike campaign financing, these reports aren't available for free online. Two years worth of expenditure reports in hard copy cost her $118.

Few lobbyists filed reports, and there were none reflecting any sponsored trips or partisan fundraisers. A few reported meals bought for lawmakers, but Chaffee said these raised more questions than answers.

Simon, as it turns out, is one of the few who reported the meals. He's a registered lobbyist for the Western Dakota Energy Association, which represents communities in oil and coal country. According to his filings in 2017 and 2018, he spent $100 each on dinners for five legislative committees, $200 on dinner for one committee and $387 on lunch for another committee.

Membership of these committees ranges from six to 21, so dinner for an entire committee would cost a lot more than what was reported. Chaffee said it's possible he contributed to the meals with other lobbyists, but none reported the same meals as he did.

Simon said these committee dinners are organized by lawmakers at the end of each session to socialize and reward staff. He, like other lobbyists, contributed some funds as a way to thank lawmakers for their work but didn't actually attend, he said.

It's possible other lobbyists didn't report, he said, because it's probably not necessary since $100 divided by all the committee members is less than the $60 reporting threshold.

The $387, he said, was for box lunches for everyone at a committee meeting in Minot attended by local officials.

There's nothing underhanded about these activities, he said, and it's hard to believe a lawmaker could be bought for a sandwich.

No cop on the beat

The problem for Chaffee and Butcher is that's just what lobbyists choose to report.

There is no agency providing guidance about exactly what must be reported or auditing these reports to ensure compliance with the law, which is where the ethics commission would come in, they said.

Simon pointed out that both the state auditor and secretary of state's offices are empowered by law to audit such spending. Butcher said the state auditor only focuses on the executive branch not the legislative.

The state Century Code says the state auditor may audit all financial transactions of "state government," but it mentions only state agencies not the Legislature. The auditor's office website says "audit clients include state agencies and the university system."

As for the secretary of state's office, the national Center for Public Integrity reported in 2015 that officials there said they hadn't audited anyone for at least a decade.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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