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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.

North Dakota's new Ethics Commission is preparing to meet for the first time Thursday. Other state ethics boards have taken up little to no business in recent years.

State lawmakers have an ethics committee, but there's no indication it's ever met.

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee meets only as needed to offer advisory opinions to judges and judicial candidates as to prospective conduct. And the Judicial Conduct Commission reviews allegations of judicial misconduct.

Tribune inquiries confirmed at least 11 of North Dakota's 13 elected constitutional officers have ethics policies or codes of conduct for their office, most of them adopted years ago.

It's yet unclear how often the voter-approved Ethics Commission might meet or what it will first take up. Its first meetings this Thursday and Friday will be mostly organizational, according to an agenda.

The five-member panel, comprising a retired judge, a retired brigadier general, a former mayor, a tribal college president and an attorney, is tasked with investigating ethics complaints against elected state officials, candidates for office and lobbyists, and is expected to write its own administrative rules.

The 2019 Legislature passed Republican majority leaders' framework to implement the Ethics Commission, whose members are invited to participate in a legislative interim study of the new constitutional amendment that bore the Ethics Commission.

Lawmakers also budgeted $517,000 and two full-time staff for the commission for the next two years.

Gov. Doug Burgum and Senate leaders appointed the five commissioners, effective Sept. 1.

Legislative

The 10-person Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee is designated to also serve as the Legislative Ethics Committee, which hasn't met separately or received an ethics complaint, according to Legislative Council Director John Bjornson, the Legislature's top lawyer.

The main committee did develop a legislative workplace harassment policy in 2018, and has in the past had "discussions of matters related to legislative rules which sometimes relate to ethical matters," Bjornson said.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who chairs the committee, said the lack of ethics meetings and complaints indicates nothing has risen to the level of a perceived violation.

"I think overall most legislators pull a pretty fine line and stay away from stuff like that, and so I appreciate that as leader," Wardner said.

He said it is "a possibility" the Legislative Ethics Committee would meet to address any needed changes or updates, likely after the Ethics Commission eventually adopts rules.

"We'd want to be in compliance with them, that's for sure," Wardner said.

He also said he's perceived "a higher level of awareness" or caution among lawmakers and lobbyists as the Ethics Commission takes root.

Executive

Gov. Doug Burgum's office adopted an ethics policy in October 2018, essentially forbidding any gifts in excess of $50.

The governor's attorney acts as "ethics officer" under the policy which applies to the governor, lieutenant governor and employees of their office.

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Since the policy was adopted, officials and staff have reported no conflicts of interest or reportable gifts or honoraria, according to the governor's office, though Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford did receive commemorative blankets from tribal leaders at public ceremonies.

In early 2018, Burgum reimbursed Xcel Energy about $40,000 for tickets to the Super Bowl and other events around Minneapolis to eliminate the perception of a conflict of interest after the trip came to light.

The ethics policy was in development before the Super Bowl incident. None existed when Burgum took office in 2016, though the Industrial Commission has an ethics code. The governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner make up the board.

North Dakota's attorney general, secretary of state, agriculture commissioner, auditor, treasurer, tax commissioner and three-member Public Service Commission each has an ethics policy or code of conduct for their office.

The Tribune wasn't immediately able to confirm the same for the state superintendent of public instruction and insurance commissioner.

Judiciary

Two panels, both with confidential proceedings, address ethical questions or complaints related to North Dakota's judiciary.

The five-member Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee meets as needed when requested by a judge or judicial candidate in a questionable situation. Recent opinions have addressed campaign contributions and campaigns involving social media.

The committee has met "a couple times" in 2019, but "it fluctuates," said Chairman Richard Geiger, a retired judge.

For instance, the committee issued seven opinions from 2010 to 2016, but none after 2000 until 2010, according to an online file.

"The only impact our advisory opinion has is that if (the requestor acts) consistent with it, it means they've acted in good faith," Geiger said. "But our advisory opinion does not trump anything the Judicial Conduct Commission rules on, or the Supreme Court."

The Ethics Commission's convening chairman, Ron Goodman, is a retired judge and past chairman of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee. He said his experience there probably "would allow me to think in terms of what an ethical question is." 

But he sees the Ethics Commission acting differently than the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, which takes questions from judges or judicial candidates.

"This is different in the sense that we’ll probably get questions from other people regarding the ethical behavior of certain people, and we’ll respond to that," Goodman said.

The seven-member Judicial Conduct Commission reviews complaints alleging judicial misconduct.

The board considered 26 complaints in 2018, 24 of which received summary dismissal and two of which were pending as of Dec. 31, according to the 2018 annual court report.

Thirteen of 22 complaints filed in 2018 alleged improper rulings or decisions, according to the 2018 report. Two alleged conflicts of interest. Two alleged bias.

One judge was sanctioned three months without pay in 2017 and assessed $10,000 for costs of proceedings.

"We take the complaints as they come in," Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Ryan Heintz said. "You can't really say it's busy or it's not busy."

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

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