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Lloyd Omdahl, Published April 07 2013

Omdahl: Pressure affects behavior

Questions of conflicts of interest are continuing to haunt the North Dakota policymakers involved in the burgeoning oil industry.

Inquiries into the issue have been spawned by the governor’s ownership of oil stocks and the previous industry connections of Lynn Helms, director of the State Department of Mineral Resources.

As stated in a previous column, the advent of the multibillion-dollar oil industry has thrust the state into the big league of high-stakes politics.

With each new regulation or statute, billions of dollars will be at stake for both the state’s residents and the oil industry. The higher the stakes, the greater the pressure to influence.

North Dakotans are a trusting people, believing that almost everybody will do the right thing. That makes us gullible in this new game of high-stakes economics. And we are not prepared for it.

In the first place, we don’t have the statutory or regulatory infrastructure to defend the state’s interests.

Recently, the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International teamed up to study the vulnerability of the 50 states to corruption. North Dakota was awarded the grade of “F” and ranked 43rd in the country in preparedness to prevent corruption. No state received an “A.”

The state flunked in a number of categories, including disclosure of political financing, legislative accountability, disclosure of lobbying, ethics enforcement and legislative redistricting.

The report was based on a “state integrity index” of 330 integrity indicators across 14 categories of state government.

Journalists in each state were involved in the interviews and research. Their work was reviewed by other knowledgeable people in the state. There wasn’t a lot of room for subjectivity because it was primarily a matter of checking our statutes and regulations.

Writing a summary article for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative news organization, Caitlin Ginley noted that 41 states have commissions to monitor ethics, but they are ineffective because they lack investigative powers and staff.

A review of these 41 ethics commissions tells us why they are ineffective: They are almost all controlled by the politicians whose ethics they were created to monitor. Governors and legislators appoint most of the members.

Then they are underfunded to keep them from hiring investigators.

North Dakota is one of the nine states without an ethics enforcement agency. The closest mechanism we have is a statute that permits citizens to petition for a grand jury investigation. The Legislature is now writing new legislation to prevent citizens’ grand juries from being used in the future.

Not only do we lack the statutes and regulations to force public disclosure of political financing, lobbying, and conflicts of interest but we have an elementary idea of modern strategies being used to influence policy. It is no longer enough to have a legislative rule against accepting a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.

Since the failure of ethics commissions in other states can be attributed to the politicians, it would be necessary to have some sort of commission in the state constitution, structured in such a way that it would be outside the reach of politicians.

But it is not in the interest of politicians to create such an entity. Consequently, an ethics commission would have to be initiated by the people as a constitutional amendment. But such a grass-roots movement usually don’t happen until a major scandal occurs.

Outside investigators have established that North Dakota is vulnerable to corruption. As Jefferson once said: “The hole and the patch should be commensurate.” So far, all we have is the hole.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com