Guest Post: Ethics Commission Front-Runner Has Corporate Ties to Large State Government Contracts


This guest post was submitted by Dustin Gawrylow, executive director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network

There has been a lot of debate over the Ethics Commission that is currently being created in North Dakota as a result of the passage of the Measure #1 in 2018. Sixty-eight North Dakotans (including this writer) applied for positions on the Ethics Commission. The governor, senate minority and majority leaders will decide which five will make it onto the commission.

But one somewhat disturbing tidbit of news was released a few weeks ago.

According to the Bismarck Tribune, the Chief Legal Officer for AE2S, Jonathan Sickler is a front-runner for a seat on the commission.

The selection panel on Wednesday whittled 25 names to 17 and found consensus on two more people all three agree on. They are Bill Knudson, of Mandan, a member of several local boards and organizations; and Paul Richard, of Fargo, an attorney and retired Sanford Health executive. They join retired judge Ronald Goodman, of Oakes; Cankdeska Cikana Community College President Cynthia Lindquist, of Devils Lake; and Jonathan Sickler, chief legal officer for AE2S in Grand Forks, as front-runners, but not finalists.

Now, Mr. Sickler may be a very good legal mind, but day-job working for AE2S is clearly a disqualifying conflict of interest by the fact that AE2S is a major recipient of taxpayer funds by way of government contracts.

Here’s why.

AE2S has procured hundreds of millions of dollars worth of state and local government contracts, as their own “Our Work” webpage shows. One of those projects is the Western Area Water Supply Authority (WAWSA), which according to WAWSA own data has generated over $56 million for AE2S. This is just one of many very large government contracts.AE2S has a large lobbyist group, with at least six lobbyists registered for each of the last few legislative sessions. These lobbyists are there to push legislators to provide funding for all sorts of projects that AE2S would likely have a very good chance of garnering the contracts for when the time comes. This creates a conflict if the Ethics Commission ends up looking at the relationship that AE2S has with WAWSA and legislators (click for a larger view).

The now-former CEO of AE2S, Steve Burian, is still heavily involved in the company and is a prolific donor to political candidates. This creates yet another conflict of interest when it comes to being an impartial judge of campaign finance rules. You will notice that Governor Doug Burgum and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner are on this list – and are two of the three votes deciding the make up of the Ethics Commission (click for a larger view).

AE2S’s Influence Is Widely Documented

In 2017, an article by Jason Spiess was published exposing the way that AE2S is intertwined with the WAWSA project:

There’s an old saying in journalism – “follow the money.” That phrase inserted itself into America’s lexicon and popular culture during the movie “All the President’s Men,” a film portraying the events of Watergate. Since then, that phrase has been taught or talked about in most basic media classes.

Here are the two basic numbers most taxpayers will retain and focus on – $150M and $469M. These numbers are the original projected price of WAWSA, $150M, and the current estimated cost, $469M. That’s right, the WAWSA project is now well beyond three times the original quoted price to the North Dakota taxpayer without a conclusive final cost in sight.

And then there was the number that jumped off the page the highest. According to Wirtz, WAWSA has paid approximately $48 million to engineering firm AE2S, often referred to as Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services.

Another number affiliated with WAWAS and AE2S that stood out as well was the number one. That is how many engineering firms bid on the multimillion dollar project. One firm and one bid. That’s incredible for multiple reasons, but probably the most amazing is the fact the state accepted the bid with only one company bidding.

Read the whole thing.

The Chief Legal Officer For AE2S Must Be Disqualified

With all these issues in place, it is very clear that Governor Burgum and Senator Majority Leader Rich Wardner have their own political financeds tied to AE2S, and that the Chief Legal Officer of AE2S has no business being appointed to any legitimate Ethics Commission.