The Key to Addressing Burgum’s Business Interests Is Transparency


North Dakota Governor-elect Doug Burgum embraces his fiancee, Kathryn Helgaas, at the close of his acceptance speech Tuesday, Nov.8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in downtown Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

At the national level voters elected Donald J. Trump to the White House. Here in North Dakota voters elected Doug Burgum to be our state’s 33rd governor.

One thing both of these men have in common are extensive private sector business interests.

At the national level there is much media hand-wringing and partisan rancor over what Trump will do to address conflicts of interest between his official duties as president and his personal interests as a businessman. At the local level there is, on a much smaller scale, some of the same for Burgum.

But addressing these situations is relatively simple. We should follow to basic rules:

  1. Private interests must not be any sort of a distraction or a drain on time for elected leaders.
  2. All such interests should be disclosed to the greatest degree possible.

In a nutshell, the key is transparency. As long as the public is aware of any connections between a given piece of policy and the businesses interests of an elected official, as long as they can be assured that the leader’s focus is on governance and not enriching himself/herself, we don’t really have a problem.

The voters can judge motivations for themselves.

That seems to be what Democratic House Minority Leader Corey Mock is hinting at when he talks about proposed legislation for disclosure of financial interests (emphasis mine):

Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said there’s always the potential for conflicts of interest when someone starts working in state government, including legislators.

“As far as the governor is concerned, I don’t know how that will affect him,” she said. “But I certainly hope that he remembers the ethical procedures that we expect in the state of North Dakota. Hopefully, he will be plenty busy with the work of the state.”

House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, echoed that sentiment. He said he’ll introduce legislation this upcoming session requiring statement of interest forms, where North Dakota political candidates list their financial interests, to be posted online for easier public access.

“So that way, if there are any concerns that elected officials are acting with a conflict of interest but not properly disclosing it, that the public can look at their documents, they can review their statements of interest and they can have that confidence restored,” Mock said.

In the past Mock has been guilty of trying to advance, under the auspices of transparency and ethics, some truly poor public policy which would do more to facilitate partisan witch hunts than ethical governance.

His repeated demands for a state ethics commission are the chief example of this. He would create a political instrument for making judgments about the ethics of elected leaders which ought to be left to the voters.

But this transparency proposal seems like a good one. If Mock’s legislation matches his description here Republicans ought to get behind it.

We shouldn’t treat the private sector success of leaders like Trump and Burgum as some sort of sin for which they need repent upon taking office. We should only ensure that their interests are clear so that when they inevitably intersect with public policy the public is aware of the situation and armed with the facts allowing them to judge motivations.

Besides, it’s not like North Dakota is any stranger to having businessmen as Governor. The last three – Jack Dalrymple, John Hoeven, and Ed Schafer – all came into office with extensive private sector holdings. Some might argue that the key to North Dakota’s excess over the last few decades lays in trusting the reins of government to people with that sort of experience.