BISMARCK — The North Dakota Ethics Commission has a new executive director who says he will try to help navigate the board through the choppy waters ahead.
David Thiele took the reins as the commission's first director at the beginning of the year, but the board's meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 22, was his first in the position. The 60-year-old once worked as a judge advocate for the U.S. Army before returning to his home state and joining the North Dakota National Guard, where he served as a lawyer and top administrator.
The new director said he will use his background as an attorney and ethics counselor for the National Guard to help the commission create rules and procedures for handling complaints of ethical misconduct. The rules could also establish if certain topics, like campaign finance disclosures, fall under the commission's jurisdiction. The commission does not yet have a detailed process for handling complaints or punishing those deemed guilty of ethical violations.
State law gives the commission nine months from its creation, which would be early April, to take preliminary steps in creating rules, but it could ask for an extension. The new director said he's "very hopeful" the board can meet the April goal.
Thiele added that the commission will give members of the public a chance to comment on the proposed rules.
"The public comment process is very important because what we want to do is try to achieve as much buy-in as we can with all of the constituents, which at the end of the day, is everybody in North Dakota," Thiele said. "We won't make everybody happy, but I think we can get to point where everyone's got a comfort level that we're promoting transparency and accountability."
Thiele will also try to help the commission maneuver through inconsistencies between the statute that established the commission and the state constitution. The constitution says there will be a confidential whistleblower hotline to make complaints, but the Legislature decided last year that the complainant's name will be provided to the respondent. Thiele said it's not clear whether the commission has the authority to solve the discrepancy on its own.
The commission also currently lacks the ability to subpoena parties involved in complaints or documents necessary to evaluate complaints. Thiele said he believes the board cannot give itself subpoena power and would likely only get it through legislative action. Chairman Ron Goodman said the commission would have to look into the subject.
Thiele, a Bismarck resident, said he is a "good fit" for the job and he looks forward to advising the commission through the challenges. The new director comes at the job with an optimistic view of his fellow North Dakotans.
"I think North Dakotans, by nature, we try to do the right thing," Thiele said. "It's going to be interesting to see how much work we actually have as far as complaints."
Thiele will make $115,000 per year as the commission's first full-time employee. Voters approved the establishment of the commission in 2018 despite pushback from a Republican-led legislature. Gov. Doug Burgum and Senate majority and minority leaders selected the five-member commission to oversee the conduct of lobbyists, state officials, lawmakers and candidates.