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North Dakota state Capitol

The North Dakota state Capitol in Bismarck is offset by flowers in full bloom in June 2018.

Gov. Doug Burgum's office has finalized an ethics policy, months after the governor reimbursed about $40,000 to Xcel Energy for events related to a Super Bowl invitation to Minneapolis. 

The two-page policy applies to the governor, lieutenant governor and all employees of the governor's office. Its language addresses conflicts of interest, gifts, expenses and political activities, among other items.

Governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the office had no ethics policy when Burgum entered. Work began on the policy in 2017 at Burgum's direction and led by governor's counsel Leslie Bakken Oliver, with input from staff.

The policy also designates the governor's counsel as "ethics officer" to "maintain records related to reports received under this policy and take appropriate measures to ensure that employees are familiar with applicable ethics law and policies."

The ethics policy also addresses gifts apparently similar to Burgum's Super Bowl invitation: 

"No employee may accept, directly or indirectly, a gift with a value exceeding $50 from any person, business or entity. If a gift in an amount greater than $50 has been accepted, it must be reported to the ethics officer and returned to the donor. If it is unduly burdensome to return the gift to the donor, it must be transferred to a charitable organization.

"No gift of any value may be accepted if offered with the intent to directly or indirectly influence the exercise of official action."

Former Gov. Ed Schafer, who served from 1992 to 2000, said his administration's scheduler kept fine lines on personal, business and mixed travel and appropriate reimbursements. He called the ethics policy "a good thing." 

"I think it's something that builds trust with the people," he said.

Schafer said he doesn't see abuse or a conflict of interest in a corporation or individual entertaining public officials, unless a "quid pro quo" is involved, such as a ball game in exchange for signing legislation.

The former governor said he didn't see Burgum's Super Bowl invitation as "an offense," but expressed surprise at its expensive nature.

"If they're just saying, 'Hey, we'll fly you out, go to the game, have some fun times and fly you back,' it seems that's a little different than 'You're going to be here and go through operations and try to build a relationship with our company and the governor's office,' and part of that is going to a nice dinner and a ball game," Schafer said. 

Ellen Chaffee, co-chair of North Dakotans for Public Integrity behind Measure 1, said she was pleased to hear of the ethics policy, but hadn't seen yet it. 

Measure 1 would establish a state ethics commission, with rules and guidelines developed by the Legislature. Opponents have criticized the initiated constitutional measure as too vague and potentially delegating too much power. 

"Other offices in state government also have their own ethics policies, so it's good to see that the governor's office is now yet another state agency that does have ethics policies," Chaffee said. 

The governor's office is also subject to the North Dakota Industrial Commission code of ethics, to which the new ethics policy is supplemental, Nowatzki said.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Capitol Reporter