Updates: House and Senate Ethics Committee Hearings!
On Tuesday, March 12th both the House and Senate Ethics Committees convened for the first time since crossover to hear the bills created by their opposite counterpart. While no amendments were heard in either committee, fantastic testimony was delivered in support of SB 2148 by Tim Mathern (D,11), David Hogue (R, 38), and NDPI attorney Greg Stites.
Questions from the House Ethics Committee about SB 2148 ranged from concerns about anonymity of complainants to simple dialogue about how best to adjust for inflation. Senator Mathern, Senator Hogue and Mr. Stites were able to clear up most concerns that the committee had about the bill, as well as explain the merits of the different approach taken by the Senate Ethics Committee. Kim Koppelman (R, District 13) took a particularly aggressive line of questioning with Mr. Stites, citing concerns that the Ethics Commission would have unchecked authority under the Senate bill. Mr. Stites assured the committee that while the Ethics Commission was granted the appropriate power necessary to perform its duties unhindered, many checks and balances had been written in, and as with all constitutional bodies, the judicial branch has the final say in all conflicts.
The Senate Ethics Committee met directly after the House Committee, and Senator Rich Wardner (R, District 37) introduced the bill. After the opening remarks, Representative Jim Kasper (R, District 46), Chair of the House Ethics Committee read through the bill with the committee and highlighted the differences between HB 1521 (the bill under review) and SB 2148. Committee members expressed concerns that a $500 fine wouldn’t be enough to deter politicians and lobbyists from exchanging gifts, particularly if the gifts were worth substantially more than the fine, mirroring one of our biggest concerns with the bill as an organization. They also questioned the conflict between the constitutionally mandated definition of gifts and the bill’s exceptions, which allow for the giving of travel and services as long as they are under the guise of education. This concern was also raised later by NDPI attorney Greg Stites and flagged for the committee, among others, as an area of constitutional non-compliance. A private citizen also testified and raised the same concern, saying that this exception would open the floodgates and allow lobbyists to circumvent the entire law.
In all, many important ideas were exchanged between Committees, and we as an organization were able to bring our concerns to the respective Committees through Mr. Stites’s articulate testimony. We want to thank everyone who was able to make it to the hearings. Your continuing support speaks volumes about North Dakota’s commitment to putting an end to corruption once and for all. While there are currently no hearings on the schedule, we will continue to keep you in the loop as we move forward.
The primary remaining issues are transparency, gifts, and Ethics Commission operations and funding. Transparency is complex, which is why Article XIV allows three years before it takes effect. We think that a legislative interim study committee could be helpful in this. Gifts and the Ethics Commission are also still issues of non-compliance with Article XIV that must be fixed.
We would ask for our supporters to send messages of appreciation to their state Senator, as their endorsement of SB 2148 before crossover was unanimous. Additionally, encouraging members of the House to support only bills that comply with the Constitution is a top priority.
Thank you for your continued support!
Article XIV News: After Crossover
February 26, 2019
The second stage of the legislative process begins tomorrow, and it will determine whether Article XIV moves from the Constitution to reality properly and collaboratively or with costly lawsuits and fierce animosity. Now is when legislators must choose: Do I work for the citizens or for the wealthy and powerful?
The next few weeks are when your engagement will have the greatest impact, second only to your vote for Measure 1 last November 6. The voices of money and inertia are loud - we have to be louder, and we have so many options, including calls and emails to legislators, calls to talk shows, questions at legislators’ hometown forums, social media posts, activating friends and neighbors. Would you set a goal of two actions every week, now through mid-April? Three?
We just submitted Ellen Chaffee’s letter to the editor, below, to all newspapers statewide. It explains the messaging and call to action. More links to helpful resources for your own action plan are available here.
The second letter to the editor, also submitted today, is from the national Coalition for Integrity, which evaluates state ethics laws. ND got a 0 out of 100. We’ll send you their multi-page letter to members of the House and Senate Ethics Committee upon request.
Let’s finish the job! Now is the time.
Letter from Ellen Chaffee: Legislators Will Soon Reveal Their Ethics and Loyalties
Power corrupts. North Dakotans see that, and they hate it. Voters in two-thirds of the state’s legislative districts passed Measure 1 which created the ethics amendment, Article XIV of the North Dakota Constitution. People who elected 59 percent of the Republican legislators and all of the Democrats have declared, “Enough! Turn this corruption train around.”
Ignoring them, leaders of the Republican supermajority, their followers, and some Democrats are vigorously resisting legislation that the ethics amendment requires to implement reform. More than half - 81 House members - approved HB 1521, which violates constitutional requirements, severely handicaps the ethics commission, and allows corrupt behaviors to continue. They violated their sworn duty to uphold the state Constitution.
Legislators say that only a few of their colleagues are corrupt. If good ones are the majority, as they say, why haven’t they fixed it? Instead, they follow powerful legislative leaders who have cozy relationships with the wealthy and powerful. We the people cannot be in the hallways and side-rooms to remind them every day: they are supposed to represent us. We shouldn’t have to remind them.
The ethics amendment charts the course for a much more trustworthy government, but will legislators follow that path? Or are they “more interested in protecting their power and perks than doing what is right for North Dakota” as 82 percent of North Dakotans believe? At this historic moment, they are about to reveal their true selves.
Reach out now to achieve what the ethics amendment promises and to prevent needless taxpayer-funded lawsuits. Tell legislators you support ethical government, you expect them to follow Article XIV of the Constitution, and you will remember this when they run for re-election. You can move transparency and accountability from words in the Constitution into real life. It’s simple.Tell legislators you want a faithful, common-sense implementation of the ethics amendment. Pass SB 2148, defeat HB 1521.
Letter from the Center for Integrity: The Devil is in the Details
The people of North Dakota recognized the importance of honest government in November, adding Article XIV to the Constitution to create an independent Ethics Commission, institute meaningful prohibitions on gifts and demand transparency in campaign funding. Now the Legislature faces the challenge of implementing Article XIV in a meaningful way.
As President and CEO of Coalition for Integrity, a non-profit organization that works to combat corruption, I can attest that ethics reform in North Dakota is long overdue. When we released the States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials (S.W.A.M.P) Index, which rates the 50 states and D.C. on the laws and regulations governing ethics and transparency, North Dakota received a score of 0 out of 100. Its last place ranking reflected the lack of an ethics agency, the absence of meaningful gift rules, and poor transparency in campaign finance and conflicts of interest.
Article XIV addresses each of these failings but the devil is in the details. At the most basic level, the Legislature must create an independent Ethics Commission with sufficient funding and a full-time staff. An effective ethics agency must have strong investigative powers, including the ability to subpoena, and the authority to conduct public hearings to ensure thorough and fair investigations. It further needs the power to impose a variety of sanctions including fines, injunctions, and personnel actions. Members of the Ethics Commission should be protected from removal without cause. Finally, gift rules should apply to all government officials and should prohibit gifts above a nominal threshold regardless of intent.
North Dakotans deserve an independent, effective ethics regime. We urge state legislators to support strong accountable, transparent government by passing without delay implementing legislation that meets this minimum standard.
Shruti Shah, President & CEO
Coalition for Integrity
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 300
Washington DC, 20005