North Dakota’s governor and Senate leaders were unfazed Tuesday that one of their picks for the state’s new ethics commission leads a tribal college that has received more than $2 million in state grants in recent years, which one longtime lawmaker argued is a conflict of interest.
Cynthia Lindquist, president of the Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten was selected as one of five members of the voter-approved ethics commission last week. Voters created the commission last year through a constitutional amendment that allows the panel to write rules on transparency, corruption, elections and lobbying as well as investigate wrongdoing.
Gov. Doug Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Tuesday the governor's office was aware that the tribal college had received state dollars but noted it's primarily federally funded.
"The committee was confident in her ability to serve on this commission," Nowatzki said.
The three-member selection committee considered potential conflicts of interest during its deliberations, and it eliminated one candidate because his business rents space from Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford. The constitutional amendment bars lobbyists, political party officials and public officeholders from being a member of the commission.
Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, a member of the House's budget-writing committee, said it isn't "proper" for Lindquist to be on the commission while she's "directly connected" to state funding appropriated by lawmakers who will be subject to ethics rules.
"I think it puts everybody in a difficult position," he said. "How do we handle tribal funding next session?"
The college received almost $2.1 million in workforce development grants from the state Department of Commerce during the 2013-15 and 2015-17 budget cycles, according to North Dakota Legislative Council. It also received about $176,000 in North Dakota University System grants during the past four years for nonbeneficiary students — North Dakota residents who aren't enrolled tribal members or the child of an enrolled member.
Lindquist said the nonbeneficiary student funding is the only direct state money the college currently receives. In her application to the ethics commission, Lindquist said the college has an average enrollment of about 200 students and an annual operating budget of about $12 million.
Lindquist said she didn't foresee any conflicts with her role on the ethics commission, noting they receive a relatively small sum of money from the state.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, also didn't see Lindquist's role as a conflict. Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, called Lindquist "fair in everything she does."
"It's not an issue for me," she said. "I think if you start looking at conflicts between anybody and everybody in the state of North Dakota, we're going to find something."
The commission hasn't yet announced a date for its first meeting.