Kylie Oversen: North Dakotans need, deserve an ethics commission for state officials

Kylie Oversen: North Dakotans need, deserve an ethics commission for state officials

As North Dakotans, we pride ourselves on electing a government made up of our citizen friends and neighbors. We rightly expect those who represent us in Bismarck to be transparent and accountable in how they came to be elected. That’s why we require the political parties to report publicly where they receive their campaign contributions and how they spend those contributions. When it comes to our local, legislative, and statewide candidates, however, we only require them to report publicly from whom they receive their campaign contributions.

In other words, there is no prohibition against a candidate or elected official using campaign contributions for personal use. And even if such a prohibition did exist, there is no agency or commission in place to ensure that candidates or elected officials do not improperly spend those funds. Are legislators using campaign contributions to take vacations? To buy themselves a boat? A car? A second home? Well, even if they are, they are not violating any law. The Dem-NPL finds this to be unacceptable. That is why we have been fighting for more transparency and accountability in how our elections are run, and why we will continue that fight.

Ethics commissions have been established across the country to provide transparency and accountability in election processes. These commissions ensure that campaign contributions are raised and spent appropriately. They ensure that candidates and elected officials are behaving properly. That is why forty-two states have one. North Dakota is one of eight states in the nation that does not have an ethics commission. In those eight states, oversight is provided through various legislative committees and/or state agencies.

In North Dakota, the office of the secretary of state is one of the agencies that provide oversight of our campaign finance system. Let us recall, then, a recent example of Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s efficacy in oversight of our campaign finance laws.

In March of this year, one of Sen. Lonnie Laffen’s (R-Grand Forks) constituents discovered that Laffen — along with Gov. Dalrymple and the ND Oil PAC — received contributions from a foreign citizen. Sen. Laffen told a reporter that the foreign contribution was “perfectly legal . . . I checked with the North Dakota Secretary of State a long time ago, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting donations from any country.” The Federal Election Commission, however, has something to say about that. Under federal law, accepting a campaign contribution from a foreign citizen is not “perfectly legal.”

Contributions and donations may not be solicited, accepted, or received from, or made directly or indirectly by, foreign nationals who do not have permanent residence in the United States (i.e., those without green cards). This prohibition encompasses all US elections; including federal, state and local elections. (11 CFR 110.20(b)).

When asked by a reporter whether a candidate for political office in North Dakota was permitted to accept a foreign contribution, Secretary Jaeger — remember, he’s the person in charge of conducting the oversight an ethics commission would otherwise provide — stated that he was “not aware of anything in state law that would prevent a legislator from accepting a foreign contribution.” Jaeger further said that, “It is our long-standing understanding that the federal laws under the FEC apply to federal candidates and do not apply to in-state non-federal candidates.” Not only did Secretary Jaeger provide inaccurate legal advice, he showed exactly why an ethics commission is necessary to ensure our elections are run properly, transparently, and that our candidates and politicians are held accountable. If an official responsible for providing oversight has such a grave misunderstanding of the laws governing that oversight, should we really expect North Dakotans to trust the process?

Secretary Jaeger has a long history of flaunting North Dakota’s history of clean and fair elections, and that is something we can all be proud of. On the secretary of state’s website, it is asked, “Have there been incidents of widespread voter fraud in North Dakota?” and “Does North Dakota have widespread problems with non-citizens voting?” The answers to these two questions are, unequivocally and simply, “No.” In fact, it is stated that North Dakota has “had very few known incidents of voter fraud.”

These facts are surely why Republican legislators, while debating restrictive Voter ID proposals, said that, “there have not been any problems with the current system,” and that a bill to provide further oversight “was not necessary.” Another stated that “since he joined the House in 2001, he’s never heard” of a single conviction of voter fraud. And yet another stated, “that anecdotal and false perceptions rather than actual issues and true reality did not warrant amending” our laws in an unnecessary manner.

Actually, those quotes — while entirely applicable to non-existent cases of voter fraud — were made by Republicans in their opposition to the formation of an ethics commission. If those arguments were sufficient to justify Republican’s solution to the non-existence of one problem, why do those justifications not apply also to an ethics commission, where actual issues have arisen? Are we to just accept these contravening and seemingly incompatible rationales?
“There is not one instance of impropriety,” said one Republican lawmaker. “We don’t have a problem with unethical behavior in North Dakota.” Reality and the facts as they exist disagree: whether it was a state senator, governor, and PAC receiving foreign contributions, or one of the many other recent examples of Republican officials acting in manners unbecoming our elected leaders. I guess I can understand to a degree why Republicans would oppose an independent commission tasked with providing oversight of their behavior. Why support transparency and accountability when they can simply oversee their own actions and assure us that there’s nothing to see here, so please move along?

Unfortunately, there has recently been plenty of unethical behavior to see. That is why the Dem-NPL has led on this issue, and why we will continue the fight until reasonable, meaningful reforms are enacted. Even if that means pushing this issue until the Republican supermajority gets tired of fighting it and adopts the policy as its own, which, based on recent history, is not out of the question. Good government should not be a partisan issue. It is unfortunate that it has become so. We invite Republicans at all levels of government to join us in showing voters that good government is something in which we can all agree.

A recent segment on “Last Week Tonight” shone a light on many upsetting realities in our state. Just as Republicans will probably continue their argument that transparency and accountability are unnecessary, the Dem-NPL will continue to make a case that sunlight is the best disinfectant for rooting out improper conduct. Even President Ronald Reagan used the phrase, “Trust but verify.” If those who oppose this level of openness have nothing to hide, it follows necessarily that there is no reason to oppose it.

As our Senate and House leaders wrote regarding an ethics commission during the 2015 legislative session: “At the very least, creating an ethics commission would help avert ‘the perception that unethical conduct could occur.’ In that regard, it could only help. The worst that could happen is that the ethics commission becomes the equivalent of a group of Maytag repairmen, lacking work as honest North Dakota lawmakers mind their scruples.”
Absent the existence of a commission to ensure our candidates and elected officials are acting properly, North Dakotans can never be assured that they are. Please join us in keeping up the fight for more transparency and accountability in our elections.

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