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Port: There's nothing unethical about the consent of the governed

North Dakota's a tiny state. It's hard to find people with expertise in the energy industry who don't also have financial ties to the energy industry.

Milton Young Station, a coal-fired power plant that is home to the carbon capture initiative Project Tundra
Milton Young Station, a coal-fired power plant that is home to the carbon capture initiative Project Tundra
Forum file photo
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MINOT — There is a network of left-wing activists in North Dakota, who coordinate through their various groups to advance a very ideological interpretation of what it means to be ethical.

An interpretation that, in turn, is calculated to help these activists achieve political outcomes they can't through North Dakota's democratic processes thanks to the way North Dakotans vote.

I've written about this network before . It includes groups like North Dakota Voters First, North Dakotans for Public Integrity and the Dakota Resource Council. The activists who work for these groups seem to be coordinating their efforts through their various groups in an astroturfing campaign intended to amplify their gripes about the way North Dakota does business.

Case in point, Scott Skokos, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, also serves on the board of directors for North Dakota Voters First alongside Ellen Chaffee, who is also the head of North Dakotans for Public Integrity.

See how that works?

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Here's how it's been playing out lately.

North Dakotans for Public Integrity has launched a political attack on the state ethics commission , applying political pressure on the commissioners to adopt ideologically-driven ethics rules. Meanwhile, Skokos has sent a letter to that same commission urging them to get after the newly-formed Clean Sustainable Energy Authority, a state board that gives out grants and loans to help guide North Dakota's energy industries into a future that's, well, clean and sustainable.

Thiele.jpg
Ethics Commission director David Thiele speaks before members of the House Judiciary Committee on the second day of the 2021 legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 6.
Adam Willis / The Forum

When the Legislature created the board, it put people from the energy industry on it by statute and -- surprise! -- those people also have some financial interests in the companies and projects which got funding from the board.

North Dakota's a tiny state. It's hard to find people with expertise in the energy industry who don't also have financial ties to the energy industry.

Every connection between a board member and a company or project receiving money was disclosed by the board members, as Adam Willis reports , and the full board held a vote on whether those connections should disqualify a given board member.

That's ethical.

That's transparent.

But the Dakota Resource Council wants the ethics commission to prohibit people with those connections from even being involved.

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North Dakota has a part-time Legislature and a lot of boards and commissions that have volunteer members. Conflicts of interest happen, because everybody has day jobs away from the government. They aren't full-time politicians. The reasonable and ethical thing to do, when those people find themselves making decisions that also impact their bottom line, is to disclose them.

Transparency is what matters. If the voters know about the connections, they can judge for themselves if they're inappropriate.

The aforementioned left-wing activists at the Dakota Resource Council, et., al., don't think that's enough. They want restrictions because that's what serves their political interests.

You may be thinking to yourself, "Rob, what's the big deal about avoiding conflicts of interest?"

It's a fair question, and something I addressed with Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, whose office has been in the center of this debate over ethics, on a recent episode of the Plain Talk podcast .

Here's the problem: The definition of ethical being deployed by the left-wing activists is a double standard. It only applies to people who want to do things, not people who oppose things.

The left-wing activists hare argued that it's unethical -- tantamount to taking bribes, an argument they made in an unsuccessful lawsuit several years ago -- for politicians who serve on the Public Service Commission to take campaign contributions from people who work in the coal industry. The PSC regulates coal mining , you see, and the activists argue that it's unethical for members of the PSC, who are elected to six-year terms, to take a political contribution from anyone who wants to do coal mining.

Here's where the double standard comes in: Contributions to PSC candidates from people who oppose coal mining, like certain left-wing activists who are lately making a big stink about ethics, are just fine.

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Let's put it another way. If the left-wing activists got their way, the political clout from people who are pro-coal (or oil or gas, etc.) would be inhibited while the people who are anti-coal, etc., etc. would face no such restrictions.

Convenient, no?

Julie Fedorchak
Julie Fedorchak, a Republican member of North Dakota's Public Service Commission
File photo

What's the point of this whole "will of the people" and "consent of the governed" thing is the people being governed don't get to participate in the campaigns of those who would govern them?

What's frustrating is that this deeply political, irredeemably ideological political maneuver has been conducted under the banners of "ethics" and "transparency." Oppose the machinations of these activists, and you'll stand accused of being against ethics.

There are many things North Dakota could do to improve ethics, and a lot of them have to do with transparency. There is no reason why political candidates can't disclose every penny they raise, and every penny they spend, to an online database that is updated weekly. Political candidates in our state make some campaign finance disclosures now, but not nearly enough.

There's no reason why the politicians can't track every gift they receive too, so that those things can be disclosed.

If these activists were only supporting those sorts of initiatives, I'd be behind them. Unfortunately, that's not what they're doing. They're out to manipulate the debate over ethics so that we end up with restrictions on their political rivals.

Folks, that's not ethical.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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