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As cigarette tax bill looms, ND lobbyist represents Sanford and tobacco


BISMARCK - Health care and tobacco lobbyists seem like they would be natural opponents in a statehouse.

As bills to raise the state’s tobacco tax for the first time since 1993 confront both the House and Senate this session, it stands to be a particularly divisive year for the tobacco and health industries.

But in Bismarck this session, one lobbyist is working for both industries. 

John Olson, a Bismarck attorney and former state Senate minority leader, has a long list of clients that includes Philip Morris, John Middleton, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco and Nu Mark, according to the Secretary of State’s list of registered lobbyists. These four companies, which fall under parent corporation Altria, employ one other lobbyist: Garth Alston, who works only for them.

Olson, however, also lobbies for Sanford Health, the North Dakota State Board of Medical Examiners, the North Dakota Pharmacy Service Corporation and the North Dakota Dental Association, among others.


Olson and his employers don’t have a problem with some of the interests he represents having conflicting aims, a situation some legislative observers said is relatively rare.  

An ‘uncommon’ conflict

In an email, Olson wrote that he has “full disclosure with all the clients I represent” and “there is a process in place to address any conflict of interest.”

Sanford’s executive vice president of public policy said the health care provider is lobbying for the proposed tax hikes on tobacco. That work, however, is handled by one of its five other registered lobbyists for Sanford, which is North Dakota’s largest health care provider – and its largest employer.

“It’s really been a non-issue,” Cindy Morrison said through a statement. “When you live in a small state, many of the lobbyists lobby for multiple entities.”

Mark Jendrysik, political science professor at the University of North Dakota, agreed with that, noting “there’s a finite number of people with expertise” here in legislative matters.

In theory, though, a lobbyist representing such contrasting interests would have to recuse himself “over that issue entirely” if a conflict arose, Jendrysik said. That’s where it gets confusing.


“You could argue anything to do with tobacco should be of interest to the health care industry, but this is really hard, this is really unusual,” he said. Still, “if the people hiring him are OK with this, then I don’t see a real problem.”

Olson has not recused himself from the tobacco tax issue and has lobbied for Altria opposing the tax increase, said David Sutton, who works with media relations for Altria – a tobacco conglomerate whose lengthy list of brands includes Marlboro, Skoal and even some e-cigarettes.

Eric Johnson, president of Tobacco Free North Dakota, said he thinks a conflict could be inherent for a lobbyist who works for dueling industries.

“I think it would be hard to adequately represent health care systems and their presumed support of anything that’s health-related,” he said. “It would take an awful lot of compartmentalization for this lobbyist to split all that up.”

Johnson, whose nonprofit is pushing both the House and Senate bills, said he was “not picking on Sanford,” but he doubts a person could divide up the issues “so completely.”

Lloyd Omdahl, former lieutenant governor and longtime watcher of North Dakota politics, said the greatest difficulty would be in the minds of legislators.

“Legislators would see this as a conflict of interest and be suspicious of it,” he said. He called the situation “quite uncommon.”

A review of the 518 registered lobbyists in North Dakota as of Wednesday showed Olson is the only one working for obviously opposing sides on a high-profile legislative issue.


Clients unconcerned


None of Olson’s other health care employers are perturbed by the arrangement.

Brent Holman, executive director of the North Dakota Dental Association, said they hired him to represent them on a specific topic related to dentistry, and “if there was any topic related to tobacco, we wouldn’t use him to represent us.”

The dental association hasn’t come out with a position on the tax bills, primarily because of limited resources to study issues, Holman said.

“It doesn’t mean that we support tobacco usage in any way,” he said.

Duane Houdek, executive secretary of the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners, also said Olson’s work with Altria had not caused conflicts.

“We’re not really a health care provider; we’re a legal, regulatory body,” Houdek said. The board’s primary work is licensing and disciplining physicians, and “the issue of tobacco, I can’t remember it ever coming up before the board.”

Olson is the board’s sole lobbyist, and until he took a job at Sanford five years ago, he was their full-time legal professional. He didn’t continue after that because the board thought there’d be a conflict of interest if they needed to discipline local physicians, Houdek said.

Mike Schwab, executive vice president with the North Dakota Pharmacy Service Corporation, was similarly nonchalant.

“I hadn’t really thought of it,” he said. “I don’t really see a potential conflict.”

Schwab said the pharmacy practice group typically doesn’t condone tobacco use, but “at this time, it’s not an issue that we’re lobbying or have a position on, legislatively.”

If a conflict did come up, “obviously we’d have to take that through our board of directors,” he said.

Omdahl said it was up to Olson’s employers to determine whether the lobbyist could balance competing interests, but as a person who “doesn’t believe in tobacco,” he’s skeptical.

“If I were sitting in the Legislature, I would say this is highly irregular,” he said. “It isn’t good to have a hospital and a tobacco company in bed together in the same law firm.”


Related Topics: SANFORD HEALTH
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