North Dakota has been described as one small town with long streets. One of the state’s charms is its smaller population, which means many people are acquainted with one another.
But that friendly familiarity can pose problems where government contracts are concerned. We recently learned from a Forum News Service report by John Hageman that several state officials, including a few current and former legislators, have financial interests in buildings leased by the state.
These leases are negotiated by the state, but are not subject to a formal competitive bidding process. The state’s facility management director insists that the state is getting a fair deal, and agencies are not paying above-market rental rights.
That might well be true. There is no evidence of corruption. Then again, without knowledge of the office rental market in Bismarck and other cities, it’s hard to say whether the state is getting a bargain or paying dearly.
That’s a problem.
An even bigger problem: Because these financial interests are hidden from public view, sometimes masked by limited liability companies whose ownership requires effort to discern, the public is in the dark.
Interested North Dakota citizens shouldn’t have to be detectives to learn whether state officials have an interest in buildings leased by state government. These arrangements should be publicly disclosed and the information should be readily available.
That way, people can judge for themselves whether the state is getting a good deal or whether some official is lining his or her pockets inappropriately.
These lease contracts can be significant. A building used by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, owned by Sen. Michael Dwyer, R-Bismarck, rents annually for $213,280. Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, is a “silent partner” in a group that owns a state Highway Patrol building that rents for $203,592 per year.
Former Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who served as the powerful House majority leader, owns a building that the North Dakota Department of Human Services leases for $25,592 per year.
“A Realtor brought them to me. I didn’t go looking for them,” Carlson said. He added, “There was never any discussion about politics or who was the leader.”
We have no reason to doubt former Rep. Carlson’s word. But some people might wonder if some bureaucrat didn’t want to curry favor with an influential politician.
When financial matters involving the financial interests of politicians aren’t spelled out in the open, some people naturally will speculate. And their imaginations might conjure something more underhanded than the reality.
The “statement of interest” disclosure forms legislators and other elected officials must fill out do not go into enough detail to describe or even list these often opaque financial arrangements.
That’s unacceptable. We can and must do better.
This is exactly the sort of issue the new ethics commission should look into. The commission, still being formed, can write rules on open government requirements, corruption, elections and lobbying, and can investigate alleged malfeasance.
Sunlight, as the old saying goes, is the best disinfectant.