North Dakota Politics Needs More Transparency, Not an Ethics Committee

ND State Capitol (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)

This Fargo Forum editorial over the weekend struck the right tone on the need for more transparency when it comes to the financial interests of state lawmakers (and probably other elected officials too).

It was based on a report by my colleague John Hageman which found that a few state lawmakers are, in addition to holding elected office, also landlord for various divisions of state government.

“A building used by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, owned by Sen. Michael Dwyer, R-Bismarck, rents annually for $213,280. Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, is a “silent partner” in a group that owns a state Highway Patrol building that rents for $203,592 per year,” the Forum editorial points out.  “Former Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who served as the powerful House majority leader, owns a building that the North Dakota Department of Human Services leases for $25,592 per year.”

This was excellent reporting by Hageman to uncover these relationships, and the Forum is right to call for more transparency even though none of the arrangements uncovered appear to be improper. “When financial matters involving the financial interests of politicians aren’t spelled out in the open, some people naturally will speculate. And their imaginations might conjure something more underhanded than the reality,” the paper notes.

What we need is more disclosure from elected officials – all of them, from elected park board members  up to statewide office holders – under some sort of criminal penalty if they get caught lying.

What we need is more disclosure from elected officials – all of them, from elected park board members  up to statewide office holders – under some sort of criminal penalty if they get caught lying. We then need these reports, including those which already exist, to be compiled in some central place – perhaps with the state Auditor’s office, or the Secretary of State – so that they can be made accessible to the public online.

This would not be a difficult or particularly expensive thing to do. Our Legislature could implement it next session.

What’s unfortunate is the expectation that the newly-created state ethics committee – a panel of political appointees mandated by a constitutional amendment pushed by left-wing, anti-speech groups – implement this sort of policy.

Supporters of this new ethics committee are touting it as another branch of state government, in addition to the legislative, executive, and judicial, but I think we’re going to be disappointed by the outcome.

Ethics committees, as paradoxical as it may seem, are a generally poor instrument through which to implement ethics. Some of the most corrupt and unethical areas of our country, up to and including Washington D.C., are thoroughly overseen by various ethics committees.

They don’t work because ethics committees are made up of humans, and humans are flawed.

The Forum editorial calls on the new ethics committee to advance new reporting and transparency requirements, but it’s the Legislature which should initiate these policies. Not a panel of political appointees who, by dint of not being on the ballot, are really not accountable to the public at all.

Ethics committees are great political weapons. Political factions can demand the committee investigate all manner of transgressions supposedly committed by their opposition, be they real or imagined. But they are not very good for promoting actual accountability, and actual transparency.

Those are things we should demand from our elected leaders, and when we don’t get them, the proper recourse is to elect different people.

When the government is transparent, the only ethics “committee” we need is the one that shows up vote on election day.

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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