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Janell Cole column: Hey, man, it's not my job...

Type "unwanted stepchild" into Google and you'll get 774 hits. Maybe Google should add a 775th -- the North Dakota Racing Commission, whose business has been front and center recently due to the scandals at Fargo simulcast company Racing Services...

Type "unwanted stepchild" into Google and you'll get 774 hits.

Maybe Google should add a 775th -- the North Dakota Racing Commission, whose business has been front and center recently due to the scandals at Fargo simulcast company Racing Services Inc.

Both the governor, who appoints the commissioners, and the attorney general, whose office ostensibly houses the commission, disavow responsibility for the board. Both have a case.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says the commission is autonomous, though state law lodges it in his office, and always mentions it is appointed by the governor.

Don't look at us, Gov. John Hoeven's aides say; look at the law.

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Here's the law: "A North Dakota racing commission is established in the office of the attorney general. The commission is subject to the supervision and direction of the attorney general, except in regard to the commission's authority to spend the funds."

That supervision and direction is limited, Stenehjem says, to auditing of simulcast wagering. The commissioners hire the racing director, who runs the racing office at their orders.

Stenehjem can't enforce demands he might like to hand down, he says. For instance, if he asked the commission to revoke Racing Services' state license for being $6.5 million in arrears on state taxes -- which he considered doing last month -- commissioners could have simply refused saying, "You didn't appoint me, nor can you remove me."

Stenehjem contrasts racing with other divisions in his office. Racing Director, Paul Bowlinger "is technically the only person in 14 divisions I have up here that I couldn't remove."

Not that Stenehjem wants to remove Bowlinger. "We have a very good relationship," the attorney general said. It was Bowlinger who brought Stenehjem word last spring of millions in unreported wagering, sparking state and federal investigations into Racing Services.

Compare two similar divisions in Stenehjem's office. There is a Gaming Division office, run by a director, Keith Lauer, and a Gaming Commission overseeing all forms of gambling except horse racing.

Like the Racing Commission, Gaming Commission members are appointed by the governor. Unlike the Racing Commission, the Gaming Commission "doesn't run the (gaming) office. I do," Stenehjem said. "They have only advisory status. Keith works for me."

Meanwhile, the governor's office disavows control over the Racing Commission in part because the law dictates he appoint from lists of nominees provided by four horsemen's groups.

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The pattern of disowning the Racing Commission appeared recently when one of its foes, Rep. Rod Froelich, D-Selfridge, wrote to Stenehjem, asking him to settle whether the governor can reappoint commission members.

Froelich and other legislators contend that second or third terms are illegal because the law says "the governor shall appoint a new member" when a commissioner's term expires.

Froelich sponsored a bill last session to explicitly bar reappointments. It lost. The commission backed a bill explicitly permitting reappointments. It lost, too. With the law unchanged, Froelich wanted Stenehjem to say what the law really means.

Stenehjem passed the buck to the governor: "The governor appoints members of the Racing Commission," he wrote Froelich. "Accordingly, I am referring your letter to the governor for consideration and response."

"He didn't want an opinion, he wanted a commissioner removed," Stenehjem tells us.

Neither did the governor take any action. But Froelich got the result he wanted. When Racing Commission Chairwoman Ann Mahoney of Center learned of the letter, she resigned after serving 13 years. She said she didn't want controversy over her service to get in the way of the commission's work. The commission still remains one member short.

Cole is The Forum's Capitol correspondent in Bismarck. She can be reached at forumcap@btinet.net

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