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North Dakota ethics panel adopts disclosure rules for powerful state boards

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Members of the North Dakota Ethics Commission are, from left, Cynthia Lindquist, David Anderson, Chairman Ronald Goodman and Edwin (Ward) Koeser, far right. Second from the right is office manager Holly Gaugler. The commission met in one location on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Bismarck for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. Commissioner Paul Richard participated by videoconference.

North Dakota's Ethics Commission has adopted rules for how certain state officials should handle potential bias arising from campaign contributions.

The five-member, voter-approved ethics panel unanimously approved the rules Wednesday after months of drafting and public input, including revisions right up to the vote.

The rules for boards to avoid appearance of bias in "quasi-judicial" proceedings were initially joined with a general conflict of interest rule draft, but the Ethics Commission in March split the rules to avoid confusion.

The general conflict of interest rule has yet to be finalized. It will affect state agencies, boards and commissions without a current conflict of interest statute or rule.

New rules

The seven-page rules adopted Wednesday take effect immediately and apply to the Public Service Commission and governor-led Industrial Commission, which make decisions usually involving companies in the energy and utility industries. Both boards have their own ethics policies.

The rules outline how the officials "shall voluntarily recuse" themselves from involvement in proceedings "where the potential conflict of interest or campaign or monetary in-kind support creates an appearance of bias to a reasonable person."

Officials may consult a "neutral reviewer" to determine whether an appearance of bias exists in a situation. The reviewer would be different based on who the official is. For example, a member of the governor's Cabinet might consult with the governor's ethics officer.

Dave Thiele

David Thiele, executive director of the North Dakota Ethics Commission

"It doesn't have to create an actual conflict (of interest). It's just the facts are such that a reasonable person would say, 'We're not confident that you can get a fair hearing under the circumstances,'" Commission Executive Director Dave Thiele said.

The rules also outline factors for determining whether campaign contributions create an appearance of bias, such as the sum and timing of the contribution.

The Ethics Commission mandates the disclosures of potential bias be made using a form on its website.

The rules exclude campaign contributions of $200 or less, limiting disclosures to donations already required by law for candidates to report, available on the secretary of state's website

The rules' definitions exclude "lawful campaign contributions" of any amount from "significant financial interest." Thiele said "a lawful campaign contribution is not a conflict of interest, but it can create an appearance of a problem" to be addressed by the rules adopted Wednesday.

Other matters

The Ethics Commission is interviewing candidates for who will be the board's next executive director.

Thiele is retiring, effective Aug. 1. He began in January 2020.

The board on Wednesday also requested an attorney general opinion related to its authority to investigate violations of state law for which the board has not adopted a rule.

Gov. Doug Burgum and Senate leaders this spring reappointed Commissioner David Anderson, of Bismarck, to the board.

He is serving a three-year term set to expire in September; his reappointment is for four years.

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

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