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Burgum steps back from businesses

BISMARCK - North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum took steps to separate himself from his various business interests ahead of taking office Thursday in an effort to avoid potential conflicts of interest, but the state's highest officeholder said he will r...

Gubernatorial candidate, Doug Burgum talks about his campaign for governor now that Wayne Stenehjem was nominated at the Republican convention. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald
Gubernatorial candidate, Doug Burgum talks about his campaign for governor now that Wayne Stenehjem was nominated at the Republican convention. Jesse Trelstad/ Forum News Service
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BISMARCK - North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum took steps to separate himself from his various business interests ahead of taking office Thursday in an effort to avoid potential conflicts of interest, but the state's highest officeholder said he will retain investments related to two firms he founded.

Burgum, a Fargo entrepreneur whose campaign largely was built on his business skills, won't have a role in the day-to-day operations of the Fargo real estate development firm Kilbourne Group. Likewise, he said he has resigned from the investment committee at Arthur Ventures, a Fargo-based venture capital firm.

But Burgum, a Republican, said as an investor in those "investment funds," his capital will remain.

"The key principle here is there's no conflict in me investing in North Dakota," he said in Friday interview. "The issue here is to make sure that I have no conflict of interest relative to many state programs and decisions. What we're trying to do is manage conflict of interest to zero, we're not trying to manage my investment in North Dakota to zero."

Burgum said he'll continue to own a residence in downtown Fargo - he'll stay at the governor's residence while in Bismarck - and he'll keep his farm and ranch land in the state.

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"I'm not trying to liquidate all of my North Dakota investments," he said.

Burgum also resigned from several company boards before taking office Thursday, he said. That included Atlassian, a publicly traded software company, and Seattle-based software firm Avalara. Burgum also recently stepped down from the board of Intelligent Insites, with which the Bank of North Dakota said has current loans or investments.

Burgum said he has not yet resigned from the board of Arthur Companies, which he described as the family agricultural business.

"I'll be seeing my family at Christmas and having a discussion with them about that," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said there's always the potential for conflicts of interest when someone starts working in state government, including legislators.

"As far as the governor is concerned, I don't know how that will affect him," she said. "But I certainly hope that he remembers the ethical procedures that we expect in the state of North Dakota. Hopefully, he will be plenty busy with the work of the state."

House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, echoed that sentiment. He said he'll introduce legislation this upcoming session requiring statement of interest forms, where North Dakota political candidates list their financial interests, to be posted online for easier public access.

"So that way, if there are any concerns that elected officials are acting with a conflict of interest but not properly disclosing it, that the public can look at their documents, they can review their statements of interest and they can have that confidence restored," Mock said.

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'A good grasp'

Burgum, who grew Great Plains Software as chairman and CEO before selling it to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion, said his moves were motivated by the full-time nature of the governor's job and by an effort to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Burgum pointed out there is a code of ethics in place for the North Dakota Industrial Commission, through which the governor helps oversee the Bank of North Dakota. Those rules say commission members should avoid any action that would result in or might create the appearance of using public office for private gain or giving preferential treatment to any business or person. State law also prevents the Bank of North Dakota from making loans to a member of the Industrial Commission during their term.

On top of the steps Burgum already has taken, he said "it's going to be important to continue to pay attention."

"If there are decisions that are made or specific programs that might touch those organizations, I have to make sure on this end there's no conflict of interest, as well," he said.

Arthur Ventures, whose website lists Burgum as a founding partner, was part of some controversy over angel fund tax credits during his primary election battle with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Kilbourne Group, meanwhile, owns a variety of properties in Fargo and is a partner in an effort to build a new mixed-use tower in downtown Fargo, known as the Block 9 project. The Fargo City Commission narrowly approved more than $15 million in tax breaks for that project in May, a few months after Burgum jumped in the race for governor.
Burgum said the conflict of interest rules are "much tougher" for corporate officers of publicly traded companies than they are for the North Dakota legislators.

"I have a good grasp of this stuff, and we're going to work hard to make sure ... there's no conflicts of interest," he said.

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Meanwhile, Burgum said he's continuing to explore ways to refuse the governor's pay after he pledged during the campaign to give his salary "back to the taxpayers." He said the difficulty in making that happen is a "poster child for some of the things that are wrong with government."

"You would think that as governor that on the first day you could say, 'I refuse my salary,'" he said. "But this thing is hard-wired into a bunch of different places. So we've still got lawyers looking at trying to figure out how to get this thing done."

Burgum raised the possibility that he would donate the $132,964 annual salary to charity, but he would like to refuse the money so it can go back to state coffers.

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