Data Obtained by North Dakotans for Public Integrity via Freedom of Information Request Reveal that Vague Law, Poor Oversight, and Lack of Proper Enforcement Mechanisms Hide the Influence of Lobbyists from North Dakotans
Oct., 23, 2018, BISMARCK, ND—An analysis of lobbyist expenditure reports from fiscal years 2017 and 2018 obtained by North Dakotans for Public Integrity shows that in 2017 of the 501 lobbyists registered with the Secretary of State in 2017 only 16 (3%) reported they exceeded the reporting requirement.
“We really have no idea how much money lobbyists are spending to influence our legislators. It’s being kept a secret,” said Ellen Chaffee, Vice-President of North Dakotans for Public Integrity. “The reports aren’t even available online. To conduct the analysis I had to file a FOIA request to get the reports, pay $118, and then wait for the hard copies to be sent to me in the mail. The current law is weak, the rules are vague and reports are a jumble, and to claim that everything has been reported according to law defies belief. What is it they don’t want citizens to know?"
State law requires lobbyists to file reports annually detailing any expenditure of $60 or more on an individual—a state legislator, statewide elected official, or spouse—on any one occasion. One moderately priced dinner might not be reported, for example, but dinner and drinks, trips, hotel bills, and gifts could easily trigger the “non-zero” reporting requirement. The reports don’t aggregate expenditures. Multiple expenditures of $59.99 or less would go unreported.
“These reports raise more questions than answers,” said Dina Butcher, President of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, the committee sponsoring Measure 1 on the November 6th ballot. “The reports are few, highly questionable, and need to be investigated. Lobbyists are buying time, friendship, and favor and the reports provide few answers about who is buying influence in North Dakota.”
“I’ve been told by many of my Republican friends in the past year, Measure 1 is a solution looking for a problem. Well, clearly, here’s a problem.” said Butcher, a lifelong Republican who served in the administrations of two Republican governors, Ed Schafer and John Hoeven. “Measure 1 will go a long way toward cleaning up this mess.”
Measure 1, the North Dakota Anti-Corruption Act, will require full disclosure of the sources of funds, including funds spent on lobbying, used to influence elections and government. It will tighten lobbyist gift restrictions, close the "revolving door" between the legislative assembly and lobbying firms, and establish an independent ethics commission to investigate alleged violations of state ethics laws.
- Only 3% (16 of 501) registered lobbyists in FY 2017 reported exceeding the $60-per-occasion & per-individual reporting requirement.
- Only 9% (4 of 44) registered lobbyists in FY 2018 reported exceeding the $60-per-occasion reporting requirement.
- Partisan caucuses and legislators often hold fundraising events that include lobbyists. Only one lobbyist reported donating to partisan campaigns, though numerous registered lobbyists likely attended the same events and are pressed hard to contribute by both parties during election years. The total donation divided across members of a caucus would not exceed the $60 per-occasion & per-individual threshold.
- No lobbyist or client organization reported lobbyist-funded trips for legislators.
“Some lobbyists report travel, some don’t. Some lobbyists report sponsorships of special events and dinners, some don’t. Some report awards and honors, some don’t. Some lobbyists report campaign contributions, most don’t. Some say they ‘over report’. Others say this is simply how the legislature works," said Chaffee. "What's blatantly clear here is there is no consistency, and obviously no oversight.”
“The North Dakota Anti-Corruption Amendment is a common-sense measure developed by North Dakotans, for North Dakotans. It was written carefully by former elected and appointed public officials, educators, public policy specialists, and attorneys to protect the integrity of North Dakota and its government from the undue influence of special interests,” said Ellen Chaffee, Vice-President of North Dakotans for Public Integrity. “Who wouldn’t want more transparency and accountability in our state government? The only people who fear transparency are those with something to hide.”
In addition to banning foreign political spending and increasing transparency, Measure 1 would reduce the influence of special-interest lobbyists by restricting their gifts to public officials, prohibiting lobbyists from simultaneously serving as elected officials, closing the revolving door, and establishes a state ethics commission to provide oversight.
More information and full text of the North Dakota Anti-Corruption Amendment can be found at www.ndintegrity.org
About North Dakotans for Public Integrity
Over a dozen leading North Dakotans from across the political spectrum, including former elected and appointed public officials, educators, public policy specialists, and attorneys, met weekly throughout 2017 to develop the North Dakota Anti-Corruption Amendment. They discussed the state’s needs, researched policies in many states, studied North Dakota law, interviewed public officials, met with citizens around the state, and consulted state and national experts in campaign finance, ethics, and elections. Over 36,000 North Dakota voters, thousands more than the state requires, signed on to place the measure on the November ballot.