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Members of 2 powerful North Dakota boards would have to announce political donations under proposed rules

The proposed conflict-of-interest rules being considered by a five-member ethics panel would mark a change for the Industrial Commission and the Public Service Commission.

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From left, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem hold an Industrial Commission meeting in 2018 at the state Capitol.
John Hageman / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — Under proposed rules from the North Dakota Ethics Commission, members of two powerful state boards would have to publicly disclose relevant conflicts of interest and campaign contributions during administrative hearings.

The latest draft of conflict-of-interest rules being considered by the five-member ethics panel would mark a change for the Industrial Commission and the Public Service Commission, but the proposal isn't yet finalized and North Dakotans are encouraged to submit feedback to ethicscommission@nd.gov , said Ethics Commission Director Dave Thiele. The ethics panel will also host a public comment period at a virtual meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 23.

The Industrial Commission, which includes the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, broadly regulates business, including the energy industry.

The Public Service Commission, made up of three elected members, is responsible for regulating oil and gas pipelines, energy utilities, telecommunications companies, power plants and railroads.

During administrative hearings, members of the two commissions would have to announce campaign donations they received from any of the involved parties after Jan. 5, 2022, according to the proposed ethics rules. Those serving on the boards frequently receive campaign donations from oil firms, telecommunications companies and other business interests they may be in charge of regulating.

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The other members of the commission would then be tasked with deciding whether their colleague should be allowed to continue acting or voting on the matter. Thiele said the ethics commission staff plan to add to the rule so the boards can establish a "neutral decision maker" if multiple members have the same potential conflict of interest.

The proposed rules would also require all public officials to disclose relevant family relationships or financial interests before acting or voting on a matter. Public officials should only be prevented from acting on a matter if "the independence of judgment of a reasonable person in the Public Official’s situation would be materially affected" by the conflict, according to the proposal.

Advocacy group North Dakotans for Public Integrity complained in November that a previous draft of the rules did not consider campaign contributions to be a "significant financial interest" that could affect an official's judgment.

Thiele said some of the changes made to the newest draft reflected the feedback received by the Ethics Commission. He added that the proposed rules must be finalized by the commission before going through the administrative rules process. Thiele estimated the rules won't go on the books for at least 90 days.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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