Conveniently timed for the last election cycle, two environmentalist groups (the taxpayer-funded Dakota Resource Council and the Sierra Club) filed a lawsuit against Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk and Commissioner-turned-Congressman Kevin Cramer for accepting political contributions from individuals who work in the coal industry, as well as PAC’s which represent the industry.
According to them, these legally-made and 100% disclosed contributions represent de facto bribes.
The issue was picked up by Democrats during the election – notably by PSC candidate Brad Crabtree and US House candidate Pam Gulleson – but it didn’t get much traction with voters. Both Crabtree and Gulleson lost by wide margins.
But while the election is over, the lawsuit pushes forward, but today was dealt a major blow when the federal government weighed in arguing that there is nothing wrong with the contributions:
Both Cramer and Kalk said there was nothing improper in their campaigns accepting the contributions from coal interests they regulate. They said the allegations were politically motivated.
The financial interest issues raised in the lawsuit are unprecedented, and federal officials charged with overseeing coal mining grappled with the case because “this is the first known incident of this nature,” according to a brief by federal lawyers.
Lawyers for the Interior Department, the defendant in the lawsuit, and the Public Service Commission, an intervener in the case, said the contributions were made to the campaigns for Cramer and Kalk, not to the members themselves, and therefore were not improper.
This really is a free speech issue, because if this lawsuit prevails the free speech rights of the coal industry would be trampled.
Think of it this way: The enviros are arguing that members of the Public Service Commission cannot accept contributions from industries they regulate or the people who work in them. But the PSC doesn’t regulate envirionmental activist groups, which means that PSC candidates would be free to accept contributions from them.
Which would leave a situation where the people who want to build coal mines have no say in electing the people who will regulate them, but the people who want to block coal mines would. That’s ridiculous. That’s not how democracy works.
Though part of me wonders if this whole exercise wasn’t about trying to get the federal government to remove North Dakota’s authority to regulate surface mining.