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North Dakota Ethics Commission advances $10 food/drink limit

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Ethics photo

Members of the North Dakota Ethics Commission meet in December 2019 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. The members are, from left, Cynthia Lindquist, Paul Richard, retired Brig. Gen. David Anderson, Chairman Ron Goodman, Ward Koeser and Assistant Attorney General Allyson Hicks, adviser to the commission. 

North Dakota's Ethics Commission is eyeing a limited food and drink exception in its gift rules for state government.

The five-member, voter-approved panel on Wednesday advanced the proposal for public comment through July 9. The rule is for a $10 limit on food and beverages purchased for public officials, who include state elected officials and lawmakers.

The food and drink must be purchased and consumed during "an informal social and educational event," and "a state resident must be present but is not required to be the purchaser of the food or beverage," according to the proposed rule.

Commissioner Paul Richard said the $10 limit is far lower than other states' $25 or $50 limits. Some states have "very elaborate" rules wading into specific items, such as banning certain food, he said.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Dave Thiele called the $10 limit "pretty straightforward."

He said he reviewed the Capitol Cafe menu, and "this would allow an individual to purchase modest lunch or breakfast and coffee for a public official as they educate them on whatever concerns them."

Public or private social and educational events require a notice to be filed with the Ethics Commission that includes the date, place, sponsor, educational purpose, estimated attendance and estimated cost per attendee. The proposed rule wouldn't require notice for the $10 limit.

Thiele said the commission has received 25 notices in the last three or four months, the period of the 2021 Legislature. Cost estimates have not been "in any way extravagant," he said.

Dinners can still be bought for public officials at such events, but there must be an educational component of the event, people other than the lobbyist and public official must be present, and the board must be notified of the event, Thiele said.

A lobbyist gift ban took effect this year, prohibiting trinkets as nominal as cups and stress balls.

Gifting violations carry civil penalties that could be up to $1,000 for gifts worth less than $500, and twice the value of gifts worth $500 or more.

The Ethics Commission next meets in July, when the board could finalize and adopt the limited food and drink exception.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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