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Published May 31 2012

Forum editorial: Of course, PSC suit is political

A lawsuit alleging campaign donation impropriety by North Dakota Public Service commissioners should be a wake-up call for Commissioners Kevin Cramer, Brain Kalk and Tony Clark. Honorable men all, they seem to have a blind spot when it comes to taking political campaign contributions from coal mining companies the commission oversees.

The lawsuit was filed by the Dakota Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Dakota Resources Council. It charges that the commissioners are in violation of federal campaign contribution laws. The charge is serious and should not be blown off as merely “political,” which was Cramer’s response. Indeed, how could a lawsuit alleging wrongdoing regarding political contributions be anything but political? It’s the political factor (campaign contributions) in the PSC’s conduct that is – and should be – under legal and voter scrutiny.

Kalk complained the suit is the product of a “radical left-wing group.” That’s a not-so-clever attempt to divert attention from the charges in the suit. It’s called “shoot the messenger.”

The facts of the allegation are not in credible dispute. The three commissioners received a total of some $54,000 from coal companies, including South Heart Coal Inc., and/or the companies’ owners/

executives, at a time when companies have pending surface mining permit applications with the PSC to mine near South Heart. An additional related suit filed by the Sierra Club alleges the secretary of interior, who oversees the Office of Surface Mining, failed to enforce federal conflict of interest rules for mining regulators. The PSC is North Dakota’s mining regulator.

Cramer contends the contributions are legal (they are), that they equate to freedom of speech and that they do not affect the commission’s decisions. He said the case will not hold up the company’s application.

But the issue is not the company’s application. It’s the influence – real or suspected – the company’s political contributions might have on commissioners. It’s the apparent taint such contributions can have on the PSC’s deliberations regarding the company, even if commissioners vehemently deny they’ve been or will be influenced by legal political contributions.

That they can’t see the problem suggests an ethical lapse that often is a consequence of political ambition. And make no mistake about it: Political ambition is as much a part of the PSC these days as is its regulatory responsibility. All three want off the PSC. Cramer and Kalk are facing off in the June 12 primary for the Republican slot for the U.S. House race. Clark is leaving the PSC for a presidential appointment to a federal energy agency.

Good luck to all of them. However, in order to clear the ethical air, they should welcome the lawsuit. If it’s all political, as Cramer contends, the courts will throw it out. If there is more to it, North Dakotans might change their view of the subtle, yet corrosive, effects of political money.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.