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THEIR OPINION: Special favor mars Ness case

BISMARCK -- It isn't a secret that special favors have been offered for ages to members of good ol' boy clubs. And that seems the case in the Gary Ness mess.

BISMARCK -- It isn't a secret that special favors have been offered for ages to members of good ol' boy clubs. And that seems the case in the Gary Ness mess.

Ness, the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission director, has been charged with felony theft. Ness was arrested a week ago and spent an hour in jail before he was dealt a get-out-of-jail-free card. His attorney was able to obtain a hearing for Ness when typically people arrested Friday afternoon are not seen by a judge until Monday afternoon. The hearing held by Judge Robert Wefald was unusual.

"We have a certain set of procedures we follow, and it wasn't followed in this case. It's disconcerting," Burleigh County State's Attorney Richard Riha said. "Normally, your run-of-the-mill defendant would have spent the weekend in jail."

Because of his position and prominence, Ness certainly isn't a run-of-the-mill defendant.

But whether there were special favors sought or offered, Wefald and Ness have opened themselves up to suspicion. The wise approach for both would have been to play everything according to Hoyle. Instead, they face credibility concerns.

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Likewise, what hasn't happened since Ness was arrested is of some concern.

Ness should have been placed on administrative leave. But He is still the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission director, even though commission chairman Robert Miller told a reporter Wednesday that Ness has removed himself from daily activities. Just what that means isn't clear.

Mark Holzer, aviation planner and one of four office staffers, said Wednesday that Ness was on vacation. He said he didn't know if the vacation was planned or how long the vacation would last.

Commission member Dianne Herr, Turtle Lake, N.D., said she was unaware of Ness' status or when a commission meeting would be scheduled to discuss it.

But Miller said a meeting probably will be held July 24 or 25; that action seems to have been prompted by Gov. John Hoeven's recommendation that Ness be placed on administrative leave.

Hoeven is right.

But why didn't the commission act sooner and more clearly?

Ness deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt until his guilt or innocence is determined, just like any other citizen. But the charge is a felony, and until all is sorted out, there should be a clear separation between Ness and the agency. Otherwise, charges of special favors will continue -- on more than one front.

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