The chairman of the North Dakota House’s energy committee recently defended a business relationship with the state’s top oil and gas lobbyist.
Mandan Republican Rep. Todd Porter and North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness are both listed in state records as partners in a commercial real estate investment group. Porter owns 5% of Bismarck Partners, LLP, and Ness owns less than 2%, Porter said.
Porter said the relationship doesn’t affect his decision-making at the Capitol because the oil industry is unrelated to the property partnership, which he said includes 42 partners. He said he and Ness were friends “long before” he joined the Legislature in 1999.
“The perception is up to the eyes of the beholder,” Porter said in a recent interview. “Just because I’m in the Legislature doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends. And just because someone’s in the Legislature doesn’t mean … that they should stop providing for their families.”
Porter ascended to chairman of what was then known as the House Natural Resources Committee in 2007. It’s now known as the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee and considers bills affecting North Dakota’s oil and gas industry, among other topics.
North Dakota is the country’s second-largest oil producer, and the industry is a massive driver of the state’s economy and tax revenue.
Porter said his political opponents tried to “make hay” with his property interests during his last re-election bid in 2016, but “there’s no hay to be made.” The relationship with Ness didn’t appear to garner any media attention outside of a brief report by blogger Jim Fuglie that highlighted the partnership's connection to a University of North Dakota building.
The partnership owns two floors on top of a UND medical school space in downtown Bismarck. Porter said the Bismarck Partners space is leased to Sanford Health, which previously merged with Medcenter One.
“Medcenter One, at the time that the building was being built, needed office space but didn’t want to own it,” he said. “And so they came back to our investment group and asked us to build floors three and four on top of the UND Family Practice Center, and then Sanford leases that back.”
Porter said state money wasn’t used to build the floors owned by Bismarck Partners, which a UND official confirmed. Lawmakers appropriated $5.4 million in 2009 for the building housing UND.
Porter said he doesn't have any "dealings with the state of North Dakota" because it doesn't "pay enough in rent." Several other current or former state officials have an interest in property rented by the state, which wasn't readily apparent on campaign disclosure forms.
Ness likewise said the partnership doesn’t have any bearing on he and Porter’s legislative relationship. He said North Dakota’s “citizen legislators” aren’t necessarily conflicted because of their involvement in other matters, noting that the Legislature includes farmers, higher education officials and others who vote on bills affecting their respective professions.
“You start casting doubt on the ability of citizen legislators to be involved in life and business, you’re going to have a much more difficult time finding folks who want to serve in that role,” Ness said.
Dina Butcher, who championed a ballot measure that etched new ethics rules into the state constitution last year, didn’t criticize Porter and Ness but said more transparency over legislators’ business dealings could cut down on hearsay. It's unclear what rules a new ethics commission created by the measure will write because its members have yet to be appointed.
“My whole thing is let’s be transparent about it,” Butcher said. “Let’s make it transparent, and then it’s not a big deal anymore.”