ND Ag Commissioner Admits To Inappropriate Office Conduct

See updates below.

Yesterday we got news that there would be a Republican challenger to incumbent Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring. Judy Estenson, who appears to have the backing of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, is set to announce her candidacy today.

Early this morning I was forwarded an email sent out by Goehring to supporters in which he addresses several issues including his handling of “extraordinary places” policy on the State Industrial Commission, his handling of animal cruelty policy during the last legislative session and what he describes as having acted “in a politically incorrect manner for today’s modern office.”

Here’s an excerpt from the email which you can read in full below.

Finally, the last issue I wish to address is the allegations about my interaction with office staff. I spoke and acted in a politically incorrect manner for today’s modern office. I meant no ill-will. The complaint was fully investigated by the State Human Resources Division and there was not enough substance in the complaint and no action was deemed necessary.

After the incident, on my own accord, I participated in appropriate training. It has always been my goal to provide a working environment at the Ag Department where employees feel comfortable doing their work.

I have made formal apologies to the staff and now hold myself to a higher standard. Furthermore, and above all, I am proud of the hardworking staff of the Agriculture Department and I feel fortunate to work alongside them every day.

I spoke with Goehring this morning who confirmed the email to me, saying he sent it out to certain Farm Bureau members. I asked him to describe the “political incorrect” situation to me, and he said it was related to describing his staff as a “harem,” one definition of which is “the wives (or concubines) of a polygamous man.”

“I had made a reference when there was several people around, I made a comment about ‘harem,'” he told me. “It was at a time when I had asked an employee to crack my back. I was having a couple of days when my back was out severely and we were at meetings out of state and I had severe headaches. I had asked an employee to crack my back. There were other people around, but it doesn’t matter what situation it was in. It was wrong and I apologize for it. I was just in a lot of pain at the time.”

He said that after the fact he realized the comment was wrong and sought out training to address it. “There was a third party that raised the objection and the staff involved said they knew there was no ill will,” he told me. “I don’t even think along those lines. I was sorry for it. Of my own accord I approached HR after the fact and then asked if there was some appropriate training that I could take. I really love my staff, and the workplace we have I believe it’s professional.”

I asked Goehring if he still plans on running for another term in 2014, and he said “absolutely.”

“We’ve done a lot of great work in the last five years I took an oath of office to serve all of the people of North Dakota and to serve and represent this industry,” he told me. “I will continue to do so.”

I had spoken with Erik Assmundstad, the former President of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, last night. He told me that Estenson’s campaign announcement today would be “very interesting,” but declined to commen further.

Democrats have made a big issue out of the way the State Industrial Commission regulates oil drilling in the state. They’ve attacked top oil regulator Lynn Helms, who works for the commission, and criticized the handling of oil drilling permits in general. They’d no doubt like a seat on the commission, which Goehring holds, and with some intra-party squabbling going on, he may just be vulnerable though in 2010 he was re-elected to his position with nearly 70% of the vote.

Update: Records obtained from the state Department of Risk Management indicate that it was more than just the “harem” comment that landed Goehring in hot water. A female Agriculture Department employee took exception to being described as a “babe in the woods” by Goehring. After Goehring asked another female Ag Commission employee to crack his back at a conference, she reported feeling uncomfortable around him and ultimately had her office relocated away from him.

One of the females who reported Goehring has since left the Ag Department. All of the records I obtained are below.

Here’s the full email sent out to Farm Bureau members last night:

Subject: Addressing the issues, allegations, and rumors

February 3, 2014

Dear Farm Bureau Member:

It has been brought to my attention that North Dakota Farm Bureau has recruited a potential candidate to challenge my nomination for the office of Agriculture Commissioner at the 2014 State Republican Convention. Competition is good for the political process and I generally would welcome other candidates to join the race. However, in the case of this effort, the motivation of the potential candidate and some Farm Bureau leaders are fueled by allegations based on untruths and misconceptions. I address those allegations here so that you have a clear understanding of my position.

First, I have always been a strong advocate for private property rights, which is the fundamental belief of landowners. The North Dakota Industrial Commission has been reviewing a proposal regarding protection from oil and gas exploration and recovery on areas in North Dakota deemed “extraordinary places.” I believe this is an effort to significantly curtail oil activity on both public and private lands. I support a policy that excludes private lands from public comment. It is paramount that we protect private property rights of landowners.

Second, Farm Bureau has taken exception to the Ag Department’s proposed fertilizer rules. Let me be clear. There is absolutely no proposal for fertilizer containment on farms. The rumors to the contrary are false. I am obligated to respond to issues raised concerning accidental releases of liquid fertilizer. When industry representatives from the fertilizer dealers requested the proposal, I felt it was important to consider their ideas and place them on the agenda for public comment and discussion. The proposal requires farmers to provide due diligence on tanks, valves and hoses, etc. I am mostly concerned that water tanks should not be used to hold liquid fertilizer. It is intended to be a common-sense approach. No new employees or funding would be added to the Agriculture Department to implement the proposal.

As an active producer myself, I too have concerns about the proposal going too far. That’s why I am committed to hearing all sides of this issue before making a final decision on the proposal. And, I encourage each of you to submit public comment to the Ag Department at http://www.nd.gov/ndda/general-resource/other/draft-fertilizer-rule. The comment deadline is February 13, 2014.
Third, Farm Bureau has questioned my handling of the animal cruelty legislation, SB2211 that was introduced and adopted at the 2013 Legislative Session. The original bill was developed by a coalition, including Stockmen’s, Farm Bureau, Farmer’s Union, Dakota Zoo, North Dakota Veterinary Medical Association, Board of Animal Health, and a couple local animal shelters.

I provided resources and initially served as facilitator, until the Stockmen’s Association chaired the coalition. The coalition worked diligently to develop a compromise that was workable for the various stakeholders and met their needs. During the Session, NDFB withdrew its support and presented amendments. It is not unusual for any bill, especially one drawing such diverse and divergent perspectives, to undergo changes as it works its way through the Legislature. And, while the amendment process created some disagreement and dissention among the stakeholders, the final product and its passage was supported by all the stakeholders, including Farm Bureau.

Finally, the last issue I wish to address is the allegations about my interaction with office staff. I spoke and acted in a politically incorrect manner for today’s modern office. I meant no ill-will. The complaint was fully investigated by the State Human Resources Division and there was not enough substance in the complaint and no action was deemed necessary.

After the incident, on my own accord, I participated in appropriate training. It has always been my goal to provide a working environment at the Ag Department where employees feel comfortable doing their work.

I have made formal apologies to the staff and now hold myself to a higher standard. Furthermore, and above all, I am proud of the hardworking staff of the Agriculture Department and I feel fortunate to work alongside them every day.

I sincerely hope the above explanations clarify my position on the important issues, rumors and allegations that have been raised.

I have been a Farm Bureau member and former leader for many years and consider many of you very good friends. Together we have faced the challenges presented to agriculture and sought solutions from a conservative perspective. If re-elected your Ag Commissioner, I am committed to that conservative approach, focusing on the diversity of agriculture, innovation of production techniques and technology, agriculture research and expansion of trade in a global market.

As I embark upon my fourth campaign for Agriculture Commissioner, please remember I was your candidate in 2004 and 2006 before my first successful bid in 2010. Don’t forget, we lost this office 26 years ago. Getting it back was very difficult. NDFB has been an important and meaningful base of support for me during the past ten years as I have campaigned for and held this office. For that, I thank you and humbly ask that you will continue to support me in the future. I believe strongly that North Dakota’s agriculture community needs and deserves a strong voice and I believe I am the best person suited to be that voice going forward.

Thank you for your time and if you have further questions about these concerns or any other, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,
Doug Goehring, Agriculture Commissioner

Goehring Documents

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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