Port: Legislative candidates appear to run afoul of state prohibition on corporate political giving
In a battleground legislative district, home to one of the biggest divides in the NDGOP's fracture, a local political party has been advertising corporate sponsorship of an event, though local party officials claim the event isn't political.
MINOT, N.D. — The law in North Dakota is clear when it comes to corporate political giving.
It's not allowed.
Businesses and corporate interests can engage in issue advocacy. Which is to say, they can engage in the political process to promote or oppose a political ideology or proposed policies. They can make independent expenditures to oppose/support ballot measures or candidates.
But they cannot give money directly to political candidates or political parties.
This law is spelled out in section 16.1-08.1-03.5 (1) of the North Dakota Century Code. "A corporation, cooperative corporation, limited liability company, affiliate, subsidiary, or association may not make a contribution for a political purpose," the law states with "political purpose" defined as "any activity undertaken in support of or in opposition to the election or nomination of a candidate to public office ... whether the activity is undertaken by a candidate, a political committee, a political party, or any person."
A violation of this chapter is a class A misdemeanor.
District 8 is a battleground district in the North Dakota Republican Party's primary season where six Republican legislative candidates are vying for three spots on the general election ballot.
The district is home to one of the sharpest divides between traditional North Dakota Republicans and insurgent, Trump-aligned populists who have been trying, with only modest success, to take over the party.
The Trump-aligned candidates, who won the NDGOP's local convention endorsement this spring, are holding a political event on May 17 which, per the flier advertising the event on social media and elsewhere, is sponsored Northern Plains Equipment.
This has raised a lot of eyebrows in state political circles.
The district-endorsed candidates — incumbent Rep. Jeff Magrum, who is running for the Senate after being drawn out of his old district during redistricting, as well as newcomers SuAnn Olson and Brandon Prichard — are explicitly mentioned on the flier as is the District 8 Republican Party.
I spoke with District 8 chairwoman Shanda Morgan and asked her about the apparent corporate sponsorship of the event.
"They paid for the food, they're not giving money for a political purpose," she told me. But when I pressed her, pointing out that buying food for a political event held by a political party in support of political candidates was pretty clearly a political purpose, she tried to claim the event isn't political.
"We're just bringing in what's-his-name to speak," she said, referring to writer and broadcaster Trent Loos, who is headlining the event. "It's just a fun event to get together."
When asked where the proceeds of the event would be going, Morgan said "I'm not sure, we haven't spoken about that," then requested to end the phone call.
Morgan called me back approximately 45 minutes later and claimed that the event had been cleared by state NDGOP officials as well as the Secretary of State's Office, though she declined to indicate who cleared the event or to provide any of the emailed correspondence.
"They did not contact our office," Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said when I contacted him about Morgan's claim. "If they had we would walk them through the law, but we would not give them a legal interpretation. I don't know who this person thinks they contacted, but it wasn't anyone that I'm aware of, because anybody in my office that's talked about this event has said it was a surprise to them."
It's worth noting that Morgan's family also owns Black Leg Ranch, the venue where the event is scheduled to be held.
Deeann Grundstad, a spokeswoman for Plains Ag of which Northern Plains Equipment is a subsidiary, told me the sponsorship must have been the result of a "miscommunication."
"This was a private donation from an employee," she told me in an email. "Our company is not sponsoring this event and should never have been listed as such!"
Ironically, Magrum has made election integrity a forefront issue since disgraced former President Donald Trump began disputing the outcome of the 2020 election. He was one of several state lawmakers to promote bills during the 2021 legislative session aimed at protection the election process from undue influence.
"It seems like there is an attempt to influence our elections nationwide and in North Dakota," he told reporter Adam Willis in January 2021 .
Magrum is facing incumbent Rep. Dave Nehring in the Senate primary. Olson and Pritchard, the latter of which has made dubious claims about attending the University of Minnesota Law School , are facing Scott McCarthy and Mike Berg.
There are no Democratic candidates running in the district.