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Rep. Lonny Winrich, Published October 08 2012

Letter: Now ND taxpayers will get bill for commissioners’ ethical lapses

What do we look for in an elected official? Honesty, work ethic, commitment. Not a disregard for state and federal laws.

Still, Public Service commissioners Brian Kalk and Kevin Cramer have made the attempt to run for U.S. House despite accepting unethical and potentially illegal campaign contributions from the same coal mining interests that they themselves regulate under the PSC. Cramer is still running for that office.

The contributions were made at the same time these coal mining interests had cases pending before the PSC, which qualifies the acceptance of these contributions as a class C felony under the North Dakota Bribery Statute (N.D.C.C. § 12.1-12-01). Additionally, these contributions are in violation of the federal coal surface mining and reclamation laws and have prompted two federal lawsuits.

None of this information is new – our local news media has been reporting on it for months. But as a state legislator, my concern was how much this fiasco was costing our taxpayers.

That’s why I wrote a letter to the PSC asking for details of what their defense was costing all of us. The response was shocking. First off, the response showed that the PSC chose to hire an out-of-state law firm to defend them in these lawsuits: Moye White LLP in Colorado.

Secondly, this law firm charges much more for their services than the average oil and gas attorney in North Dakota. Attorney Paul Seby bills out at a rate of $400 per hour, supporting counsel at $300 per hour, and paralegals/assistants billing out at $190 per hour.

That’s outrageous. These lawsuits were filed because of the activities of Cramer and Kalk as political candidates, not because of anything they did in the execution of their duties as Public Service commissioners. There’s no reason that North Dakotans should be on the hook for their personal political decisions.

In Bismarck, we work each and every day to legislate in ways that justly and responsibly manage the taxpayers' money. We know we have that responsibility, and we take it seriously.

It’s disappointing to see that the PSC doesn’t share the commitment. All they would need to do to end this lawsuit is to return these unethical contributions. Instead, they used these positions to fill their political coffers.

Kalk and Cramer have been silent on this issue, and I think it’s time for them to speak up – why exactly do they think they’re entitled to taxpayer funds covering the cost of their poor decisions? And why won’t they simply give the money back?

North Dakota taxpayers deserve an answer.

Rep. Winrich, D-Grand Forks, served District 18 in the N.D. House from 1993 to 2003 and since 2009.