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Published July 28 2010

North Dakota Democrats see conflict of interest

North Dakota Democrats say the election of a Public Service commissioner as the state Republican Party’s chairman is a “clear conflict of interest” for a statewide office that should be an impartial regulator.

North Dakota Republicans unanimously elected Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark late Monday to be the party’s new chairman. Clark replaces Gary Emineth, who resigned in early July.

Brad Crabtree, the Democratic-NPL’s candidate for the Public Service Commission, said Clark’s GOP chairmanship “marks a breach of faith with the people of North Dakota.”

Crabtree is running against Republican incumbent Commissioner Kevin Cramer. Clark’s seat is up for re-election in two years. The third commissioner, Brian Kalk, is also a Republican and was elected in 2008.

North Dakota’s Public Service Commission regulates gas and electric utilities, pipelines, coal mining and other entities.

“North Dakotans have the expectation that their PSC commissioners will review the facts of a case and apply the law in an objective, transparent and nonpartisan fashion,” Crabtree said in a statement. “The public cannot have this trust in the PSC when one of its members is publicly serving and advocating for the interests of a particular political party.”

Clark denounced Tuesday that his chairmanship creates a conflict of interest, and said Crabtree’s analogy that public service commissioners are akin to the judges of the executive branch is “completely wrong.”

“Judges by law can’t be involved in the party process,” Clark said. “Public service commissioners have to come up through the parties effectively and do run on the party ballot.”

Clark said it’s not unusual for a statewide official to simultaneously participate in political party leadership – citing a Nebraska utilities regulator who also served as that state’s Democratic Party chairwoman.

Additionally, he indicated current North Dakota Superintendent Wayne Sanstead sits also on the Democratic-NPL’s executive committee.

“This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but elected officials that run on the party ballot do tend to take an interest in the political process,” Clark said, adding that he doesn’t think the chairmanship will impact his work as a state regulator.

“You just have to know there is that balance and you have to keep the two separate,” he said. “As long as you handle them appropriately, there’s really no concern at all.”

Clark said the chairmanship is temporary – vowing to resign soon after the November election when he’ll become president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541