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After critical NDSCS audit, changes mulled for university system's conflict-of-interest policy

The campus of the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. Special to The Forum.
The campus of the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. Special to The Forum
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BISMARCK — State university system staff will have to revise a proposed policy on disclosing conflicts of interest after higher education officials voted against suggested changes prompted by an audit that found fault with the North Dakota State College of Science.

In a 2-1 vote, the State Board of Higher Education Governance Committee said “no” on Wednesday, Sept. 18, to updates laid out in the proposed policy that would require NDUS employees to disclose their interests and activities, as well as those of their spouses, significant others or family members. That would include “employment, ownership of or in service on the board of directors of an organization that has or may have relationships with the SBHE or an NDUS institution.”

Once disclosed, the employee would “not be involved in the activity or decision giving rise to the conflict of interest,” according to the proposed policy. The current policy has not been updated since 1993.

SBHE board member Jill Louters, who is on the committee with colleagues Nick Hacker and Dan Traynor, said the changes would bring clarity to the policy. But Hacker said he was worried about those who may not know they have a conflict of interest.

“I think this is some very strongly worded policy,” Hacker said before voting against the proposed policy.

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Traynor, who is an attorney, also voted against the proposed policy after voicing concerns that lawyers have obligations to protect clients. At times, attorneys cannot disclose whether they are representing a client, Traynor said.
“We may need to do some work on this policy,” he said.

The proposal comes five months after the state auditor’s office found Tony Grindberg, North Dakota State College of Science vice president of workforce affairs, did not disclose on paper that his wife, Karen, is the chief financial officer for the Flint Group, which was hired to promote a proposed career workforce academy in Cass County.

Tony Grindberg was involved in hiring the firm, according to an audit report, and that violated NDUS policy and possibly state law, the state auditor’s office said.

NDSCS President John Richman disputed those claims, saying Tony Grindberg, who's also a Fargo city commissioner, acted as a go-between and “courier of information.” Richman said he made the decision to hire Flint.

Completing a disclosure form is a formality, and NDSCS knew about Tony Grindberg’s conflict, the school said in its response to the audit. However, the school said in an action plan it would modify its policy and practices for disclosing conflicts, a move that was completed Aug. 30, according to the school’s website.

The state audit report recommended the university system update its policy. State colleges and universities have their own policies.

Under the proposed NDUS policy that was considered Wednesday, schools would have adopted their own policies, but those policies could not be less restrictive than the university system's.

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April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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