In Arguing for an Ethics Commission Former Democratic Lawmaker Embarrasses Himself

Former state Rep. Ed Gruchalla has a letter to the Fargo Forum today which is one of the most repugnant things I’ve ever seen a politician say or write publicly.

And I’m writing that in the age of Trump.

Gruchalla, a Democrat and retired law enforcement officer, was cast out of office by voters in 2014. In his letter he gives us what are supposed to be six examples of ethical lapses which illustrate the necessity of an ethics commission which Democrats have been trying to create for years now.

Here’s his list:

1. A state representative was found to have not paid taxes for six years to the tune of $400,000. She was never prosecuted and was allowed to finish her term.

2. A representative was arrested for assaulting his wife and appeared on the front page of the Bismarck Tribune in orange coveralls, during the legislative session. He was not brought up on ethics violations because North Dakota does not have a method to deal with these issues.

3. A state senator was arrested twice for drunk driving and drugs were found in his truck. He was not brought up on Ethics charges because the state does not have a commission.

4. A senator accepted campaign contributions from a foreign corporation. This is a violation of federal law. He has since been re-elected.

5. A representative took a photo of his privates and posted it on the Internet. He was allowed to finish out his term.

6. Two Public Service commissioners took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a coal company who had applied for a permit from them to open a coal mine in North Dakota. Nothing happened to them because this is North Dakota where “we have no ethics problems”.

Because Gruchalla is some sort of moral coward, he doesn’t name any of the people he smears in his letter, perhaps because he’s afraid readers might research his claims and find them wanting.

For instance, item two refers to former state Rep. Dave Weiler who was arrested in 2010 for allegedly hitting his wife. The incident was widely reported, both in local and national media, and a recall effort was initiated against him. Only the charges were dropped after his wife recanted her story, and the recall effort fizzled (Weiler did plead guilty to a previous misdemeanor assault charge).

You’d think Gruchalla, a former law enforcement officer, would have a greater appreciation for the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” but he apparently lacks that level of integrity. Regardless, this was a criminal justice matter, not something for a bunch of politicians sitting on an ethics committee. The voters had a chance to recall Weiler, who ended his time in the Legislature in 2012, but the effort went nowhere.

The first item refers to state Rep. Raeann Kelsch in 2012, only Gruchalla has his facts wrong. Kelsch and her husband faced a tax lien for over $300,000 “for failing to file federal and state income tax returns between 2004 and 2009.” At the time Kelsch’s husband had been battling cancer, and Kelsch said he hid facts about their finances from her. The liens were ultimately paid. Kelsch, however, was defeated easily in the 2012 primary where she was challenged by current state Rep. Nathan Toman.

The voters responded to the scandal better, I think, than any ethics commission could have.

I’m not sure what Gruchalla expects an ethics commission to do about unmarried adults seeking consensual sexual relationships from other adults online. It’s 2017, for crying out loud.

Item three is, again, a criminal justice matter. He’s referring to state Senator Joe Miller who was arrested for driving under the influence in 2013. A passenger he was giving a ride to had marijuana pipes. Miller plead guilty to his charges which were only related to the inebriated driving. He didn’t run for re-election in 2016. To my knowledge there was no attempt to recall Miller despite the process being available to voters. Nor is Miller the only lawmaker to have been arrested on drunk driving charges from either party.

Item four is a reference to state Senator Lonnie Laffen who accepted a $1,945 contribution from a Canadian citizen in 2014, and $1,000 in 2010. Laffen accepted the contributions after checking with state election officials who said it would be legal since there is no state law prohibiting such contributions. These contributions were disclosed in publicly available campaign finance databases. Nobody was hiding them. Later Democrats filed a complaint with federal officials, but it was dismissed because the contributions were a) initially accepted upon the advice of state election officials and b) were later returned.

In other words, the matter was handled appropriately and in the full light of public scrutiny. I’m not sure what an ethics commission could have brought to the process other than grandstanding and partisan recrimination. Nor am I sure how Gruchalla, clearly not precise with his facts, concludes that Laffen was re-elected since this became news in 2015, though. Laffen isn’t on the ballot again until 2018.

Item five refers to state Rep. Randy Boehning whose sexuality was outed by angry liberal activists because of his vote on controversial anti-discrimination legislation. Boehning had been communicating with other adult males on Grindr, a hook up app for gay men. I’m not sure what Gruchalla expects an ethics commission to do about unmarried adults seeking consensual sexual relationships from other adults online.

It’s 2017, for crying out loud.

In other words, the matter was handled appropriately and in the full light of public scrutiny. I’m not sure what an ethics commission could have brought to the process other than grandstanding and partisan recrimination.

As for item six, Gruchalla is referring to perfectly legal and disclosed contributions from people who work in the coal industry accepted by Public Service Commissioners Brian Kalk and Kevin Cramer. The Democrats have made a stink over these contributions for multiple election cycles. But when the contributions faced a legal challenge a judge found them to be legal, and neither Kalk nor Cramer have lost an election since the contributions were made.

And why should coal industry contributions be a problem? Do we object when teachers contribute money to Superintendent candidates? Or when farmers contribute money to the Agriculture Commissioner? We are all allowed to engage in politics to produce the outcomes we feel are best for us.

That’s called democracy.

In summary, there is a lot of context to these situations that Gruchalla conveniently left out. Also, as I mentioned multiple times above, at any time voters can initiate a recall election against any state elected official. I’d rather trust that process, though it’s not used often, than a group of politicians on a commission.

But his letter does make one thing clear. Democrats like Gruchalla want an ethics commission so they can inject politics into controversial situations which are better handled a) in the criminal justice system and/or b) at the ballot box.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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