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Published October 24 2013

Forum editorial: It doesn’t pass the smell test

It might be legal, but it doesn’t pass the smell test. That’s one way to summarize U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland’s decision to reject a legal challenge involving campaign contributions by coal interests to the North Dakota Public Service Commission. The judge ruled against two environmental groups that wanted to take away state regulation of the coal mining industry, contending the contributions violated state and federal law. Hovland concluded he lacked jurisdiction to review the dispute.

But the judge made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t condone Public Service commissioners’ blithe acceptance of campaign contributions from coal interests they regulate. The judge wrote in a footnote:

“This order should in no manner be construed as an endorsement of the practice of PSC Commissioners accepting campaign contributions from individuals or political action committees closely associated with coal companies and coal mining activities. Although the acceptance of campaign contributions from such entities may be lawful … the decision to do so is ill-advised, devoid of common sense, and raises legitimate questions as to the appearance of impropriety.”

Those are strong words. It’s too bad one of those who would benefit most from the message still has an ethical blind spot on the issue. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who accepted contributions from coal interests as a PSC member, issued a statement praising the judge’s decision as a victory for “state rights” and a rejection of “radical environmental groups.” Cramer ignored Hovland’s concerns about the “appearance of impropriety” and the practice being “devoid of common sense.”

Cramer neglected to mention in his statement that his campaign had accepted $11,500 in coal-related donations from 2008 to 2010, and Brian Kalk of the PSC received $5,500 between 2008 and 2009, according to records in the court case. Even federal lawyers who found themselves defending the commissioner’s actions conceded that accepting the donations “risk creating an appearance of impropriety.”

Based on Hovland’s ruling, we therefore are left for the time being hoping that Kalk and the other PSC members voluntarily refuse to accept tainted money from the industries they regulate. North Dakota voters and ratepayers have a right to expect their utility and coal-mining regulators to be above even the appearance of impropriety. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s right. PSC commissioners should read Hovland’s footnote and consider it good advice.

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