With the goal of protecting North Dakota governments from corruption, Measure No.1 has been placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot as a constitutional amendment.
Initiated by a citizen's committee, the proposal covers campaign finances, transparency, lobbying, and conflicts of interest. It creates a five-member citizens ethics commission to monitor guidelines and to receive reports from whistleblowers.
Conflicts of interest are a matter of constant concern in legislative bodies made up of citizens who engage in private businesses and employment when not serving as legislators. Invariably, they get snarled in the ethical question of using their positions to improve their private undertakings.
In North Dakota, if legislators feel they have a conflict of interest, they will usually stand and ask to be excused because of the conflict. Then a colleague invariably moves that the distressed legislator be allowed to vote. When I was presiding in the North Dakota Senate, I had decided that I would rule such a motion out of order and curtail these friendly but questionable gestures.
There is no doubt that a definition of "conflict of interest" in the Legislature should be clearly defined so legislators know the parameters. Needless to say, lobbyists are getting more adept at concealing their methods of influence.
The ethics commission is an important addition to the electoral picture. It will receive and hear out whistleblowers. There is little doubt that if corruption is occurring, the people in the agencies will be the first to know. Having a location for reporting abuses will go a long way in protecting the integrity of the workforce.
The naysayers allege this measure is not needed because North Dakota government has no corruption. Even so, the Center for Public Integrity claims we are walking a narrow rail, ranking in the bottom third of states endangered by fraud.
It is true that we have very little apparent corruption but that doesn't mean there isn't any. We could find no fraud in the voting system but that hasn't deterred the Legislature from passing new laws in every session to tighten voter qualifications. If it makes sense to pass laws to prevent fraud In elections then it makes sense to prevent corruption in the government. Until we create a system to protect whistleblowers, we will never know how much or how little fraud we have.
We believe that North Dakotans are so honest that there can be no fraud in government. Even people who don't go to church believe that. So let me correct this North Dakota myth.
Some years ago, all travel vouchers had to receive the approval of the governor. As Bill Guy's administrative assistant, it fell on me to go through the travel vouchers. On one occasion we found an elected state official illegally charging for travel expenses. He didn't run for reelection. His successor did the same thing and was defeated at the polls.
Other states have experienced numerous fraudulent activities in recent months. They too, felt that they were blessed with unique immunity from corruption. Today, they are adding ethics commissions and tighter definitions of conflicts of interest.
With tightening budgets in the media world, coverage at the capitol has declined. This is regrettable since reporters have helped ferret out evildoing and will no longer be there to help.
In the last few sessions, the Legislature has worked hard to update anti-corruption laws. The only problem with that approach is that it is legislating for itself. In other words, we have the fox designing the henhouse.
For that reason, matters regulating legislative ethics must be outside the control of the Legislature. That means we need a constitutional amendment designed for the people and not the officeholders.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and professor at UND.