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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published October 29 2013

Grand Forks architect's hunting trip with UND, NDSU presidents raises questions

GRAND FORKS – A Grand Forks architect says he won’t go hunting with the presidents of the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University anymore after a political blogger questioned the appropriateness of such a relationship given the contracts the architectural firm has won from both universities.

The trip in question took place a year ago and involved Lonnie Laffen, president and CEO of JLG Architects, UND President Robert Kelley and NDSU President Dean Bresciani.

Laffen, who is also a Republican state senator, described it as a gathering of friends and avid hunters.

“I have no business relationship with those two,” he said. “They don’t hire architects and are not at all involved in that process.”

The trip came to public attention after Rob Port, who runs SayAnthingBlog.com, published an October 2012 email from Bresciani to Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, inviting him on a pheasant hunting trip organized by Laffen. The email also mentioned that Kelley had been invited.

Buzz about Port’s posting has been moving through political and university circles, but few have raised similar ethical questions.

The posting has had one impact on Laffen, though. “Since some people think it’s inappropriate to hunt with friends, I’m probably not going to do it again,” he said. “But I’m not going to apologize for it.”

Big projects

JLG Architects has been getting contracts with universities across the state and nation for 25 years, and its website boasts projects from Bismarck State College’s National Energy Center to NDSU’s Minard Hall renovation to UND’s Swanson Hall.

“We have never missed a budget in 25 years working for higher education and our buildings run on about half the energy” of other building projects, Laffen said.

Among the latest projects is UND’s new School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Kelley announced in June that JLG would be the lead architect.

On a list of new higher-education construction projects for the state’s 2013-15 biennium, JLG won eight out of 18 projects. The appropriations for the JLG projects total $135.7 million, including $60.45 million for the first phase of the med school. The appropriations for the other 10 projects total $122.1 million.

That is, JLG won 53 percent of the architectural business for the state’s colleges and universities.

The figures include general fund dollars, special funds and bonding.

Friendship

Laffen said he’s hunted since he was boy in Wimbledon, where he often would hunt mornings before school. It’s a hobby he enjoys with friends and clients, he said.

He became friends with Bresciani after running into the NDSU president in the grasslands of southwest North Dakota three years ago, he said. “The first time we met was out in the field, we were hunting,” he said. “We shared a common love of hunting.”

In October 2012, Laffen, Jim Galloway, his partner at JLG, Bresciani and Kelley went hunting.

Spokespeople at UND and NDSU say the presidents have nothing to do with hiring architects.

“The president plays no role in the selection of architects,” said UND spokesman Peter Johnson. “By law, a committee goes through that. So there’s no way he can influence it.”

The presidents “would never give it a second thought because they don’t influence” the process for selecting architects, said NDSU spokeswoman Laura McDaniel. Instead, they likely saw the hunt as “a good opportunity to talk to the senators,” she said.

In the past 10 years, JLG had only two projects with NDSU, far fewer than several other firms in the region, she said.

Selection process

North Dakota law requires state agencies, including colleges and universities, to negotiate contracts for architectural, engineering, construction management and land surveying services “on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualification for the particular type of services required.”

Agencies must form a selection committee to develop a description of the project, list the services required and invite architects to submit their qualifications. The committee must interview at least three architects who respond or, if fewer than three respond, interview those who did or re-advertise the project.

Firms are evaluated based on their past performance, professional ability, willingness to meet time and budget requirements, location (with higher priority given to firms based in North Dakota), workloads, related experience on similar projects and recent and current work for the agency. They’re then ranked and, once a firm is selected, a contract is negotiated “at a compensation which is fair and reasonable to the state,” the law states.

Architects can be paid in different ways for projects, with two common ways being a fixed-fee approach or as a percentage of construction bids, said David Clark, executive vice president at Bismarck State College, which selected JLG for its new Communications and Fine Arts Center.

For the Erlandson Technical Center remodeling and addition project at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, JLG will be paid 8.5 percent of overall construction costs, said Corry Kenner, vice president of administrative services. State lawmakers approved $5.65 million for the project last spring from the state’s general fund.

Lawmakers

North Dakota doesn’t have any rules or laws regarding legislators doing business with the state, unlike some that restrict such business to the result of a competitive bidding process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Jim Smith, director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, said the council has rules “more along the line of what they do as a legislator voting on bills,” Smith said. “If they have a conflict of interest, they are supposed to proclaim it when they vote on an issue, but that doesn’t apply here.”

When appropriation votes are made, there is no conflict yet because the projects haven’t been awarded until later, by the agencies or institutions through their bidding process, Smith said.

Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said he also was invited by Bresciani a year ago to go hunting, probably the same trip Laffen organized. It was during his campaign, so he was busy, didn’t see the email in time and didn’t make the trip, he said.

To him it’s all in the motivation for the trip, he said.

“I have relationships with President Kelley and President Bresciani, as well, and am very thankful for that,” he said. “I have seen them both in social and business settings. And I don’t cultivate that for any other reason than to have a good working relationship with our two university presidents.”

Schneider said there’s no reason Laffen can’t vote for a building project for UND or NDSU that would involve architectural work, any more than it would be wrong for a teacher to vote on education bills or for Schneider to vote for a worker’s compensation bill even though his law firm specializes in such work.

“Unless it specifies my business,” he said.

Political experts

Political scientists at UND are not bothered by such fraternization.

“It’s not public funds,” said Robert Woods, UND political science professor and head of the Bureau of Governmental Affairs of the hunting trip.

Ethical or legal questions might arise if “a contract was inappropriately given without proper competitive bids and it was directly tracked to a handshake deal,” he said. “But just the fact they went hunting together seems to fall awfully far short. People who are going to interact at these levels are going to develop friendships. I don’t know why we would call that unethical.”

Mark Jendrysik, UND political science professor who teaches ethics, said Port “is straining a bit” to find an ethical question in this case.

“You can make anything seem improper if you try,” Jendrysik told the Grand Forks Herald via email. “How different is this from, say, a round of golf? Unless state ethics codes ban such things it is not a big deal.”

Lloyd Omdahl, UND professor emeritus of political science and former Democrat lieutenant governor, said he had been sent an anonymous letter about the hunting trip about a month ago.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal, he said.

“The connection to any architectural choice is so remote, it’s probably non-existent,” Omdahl said.

He asked a Democratic-NPL party activist about it, Omdahl said. “He said (Laffen) has been in the architectural business way beyond the bounds of North Dakota. When I told him about this anonymous letter, he kind of sluffed it off as having no credibility.”