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Brad Crabtree, Published August 19 2012

Current political practice of PSC members is wrong

It’s wrong for Public Service commissioners to take political money from those they regulate. With energy and agriculture booming in North Dakota, the Public Service Commission makes critical regulatory decisions that affect everyone.

The stakes are high, and our PSC commissioners must be beyond reproach. Yet, since 2004, PSC Commissioners Kevin Cramer and Brian Kalk have taken more than $80,000 in political money from interests they regulate and whose projects they approve.

These contributions are unethical. They may be illegal. At best, Cramer and Kalk have violated the spirit of North Dakota’s bribery statute. Their contributions may also violate the letter of the law and deserve to be investigated.

ND Century Code 12.1-12-01 stipulates that a Class C felony bribery prosecution requires that a public official receiving a contribution merely have knowledge of a pending or imminent proceeding in which the contributor has an interest, and that the interest of the contributor “could be affected” by the actions of the official receiving the contribution.

Passed in 1973 by a Republican-controlled Legislature, the refreshingly clear language of North Dakota’s bribery law reminds us of an earlier era when our legislators had higher expectations of public officials than they do today.

Rather than explain how their contributions do not break the law, Cramer and Kalk cry politics and shoot the messenger. They dismiss two current federal lawsuits over their contributions from coal companies and executives as the political work of environmental activists opposed to coal.

However, this is about more than one industry or energy resource. Contributions from coal companies represent just the tip of an unethical iceberg of regulated money from a wide range of industries.

For example, Cramer and Kalk have taken thousands of dollars from wind energy developer Florida Power & Light (now known as Next Era Energy). FPL/Next Era has routinely come before the PSC for years, seeking approval of its commercial wind farms and related infrastructure.

In one especially troubling case, Cramer accepted three contributions in 2010 from FPL/Next Era’s political action committee and executives totaling $4,800 – at a time when the company had a pending wind energy project that Cramer later voted to approve.

I support the continued development of coal and wind energy resources using best technologies and practices. However, whether someone prefers fossil fuels or renewables, or supports the development of both, misses the point: Regulators should not accept checks from interests with a direct financial stake in their decisions.

This spring, I made a PSC Commissioner Pledge of Independence to refuse any contributions from PACs and individuals representing companies, cooperatives and associations regulated by the PSC.

Unfortunately, Cramer and Kalk’s record demonstrates that voluntary actions are not enough. As a PSC commissioner, I will work with legislators from both political parties to accomplish the following:

E Require PSC commissioners to recuse themselves from cases where they have received a contribution(s) from a regulated party that has a material interest in the outcome;

E Require PSC commissioners and candidates to file an additional disclosure form, together with the disclosure report already required of all statewide candidates, that details every contribution received from PACs and individuals regulated by the PSC; and

E Establish an additional contribution reporting period before early voting, so the public can evaluate the integrity of PSC candidates – before they cast their ballots.

These legislative measures are urgently needed and will increase transparency and eliminate conflicts of interests on the PSC, without running afoul of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

It’s time to end the culture of corruption on the PSC.

Crabtree, Ashley, N.D., is a candidate for North Dakota Public Service commissioner.