By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau
GONE POLITICAL: Lawmakers and state officials have expressed concern after the North Dakota Wlidlife Federation used a Report All Poachers auction to promote a conservation ballot measure.
BISMARCK, N.D. — The Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment, if approved, would divert billions in North Dakota oil tax revenue into a fund that would pay grants to conservation groups.
A coalition of conservation groups, circulating a petition for signatures, would benefit by the move.
It appears one of the groups backing the measure also receives the auction proceeds from items seized by poachers, and North Dakota’s top Game and Fish official doesn’t know how that money is spent.
A Minot resident attending a recent auction of seized items was upset to see the presence of volunteers circulating petitions for the conservation amendment. Thinking it was a state-sponsored event, the resident contacted North Dakota Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand to object.
Under state law, it’s illegal for public resources to be used to support or oppose a ballot measure.
“We don’t have access to that”
In a series of emails from Steinwand — forwarded to Watchdog by Pat Wheeler, a private citizen — the director explains the auction events are actually hosted by the North Dakota Wildlife Federation to support the state’s Report All Poachers program, which the group administers.
“State law requires that any court ordered disposal (confiscation) must be turned over to the North Dakota Wildlife Federation (NDWF) to be sold for the highest price obtainable, i.e., an auction,” Steinwand wrote to Wheeler in a May 5 email. “Any proceeds, after expenses, must be remitted to the NDWF Report All Poachers fund.
“As such, the auction event is a function of the NDWF and not the North Dakota Game and Fish Department but we’ve attempted to have a presence at these events,” Steinwand continued in the email.
The North Dakota Wildlife Federation is listed on the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment website as an “endorsing organization.” A spokesman for the organization, contacted at the group’s Bismarck office last week, said she would have a board member contact us to provide a response. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Wheeler, who opposes the amendment, asked Steinwand for documentation on how the proceeds of the auction are spent.
“Being a private organization, we don’t have access to that,” Steinwand replied Monday in an email. “But it’s also one of the questions I’ve asked, i.e., how are the RAP funds spent?”
“(I)t would be illegal for any of these funds to be used for the initiated measure,” Steinwand wrote to Wheeler in a May 14 email. “The law is clear that it can only be used for RAP associated activities and expenses associated with the auction.”
LINES CROSSED: ” “I don’t think their political agenda should have been on display at what appeared to be a state sanctioned event,” Rep. Todd Porter, a Republican from Mandan, said of the event. “They crossed the line on that.”
“By state law, it’s not a department program,” Chief Game Warden Bob Timian said of the auction, though he also said North Dakota Fish and Wildlife is represented on the board overseeing the RAP program.
He also acknowledged little oversight for how the RAP money is used.
“The only requirement for reporting is that they’re required to give us an accounting of the auction,” Timian said in a telephone interview.
He described the use of the auction to circulate petitions for the conservation amendment as “unfortunate.”
“We didn’t even know the petitions were going to be there,” Timian said. “If I’d known about it we would have had a discussion about it. The RAP program is supposed to be apolitical.
Conservation group’s move toward politics a concern
“It seems like way back when, when they created this program, they wanted a third-party organization handling this event so it didn’t look like a law enforcement agency was profiting from the seizure of private property,” state Rep. Todd Porter, a Republican from Mandan, told Watchdog.org. “So this is really old. I wasn’t even aware that this is how it was handled. I started doing a little more digging and found out that the state, when they created this Report All Poachers Program, they wanted a neutral third-party organization.”
Porter sponsored legislation last year that created the state’s existing conservation fund. He said it’s “concerning” that the group picked to administer the program has “become more political.”
“I don’t necessarily agree that they should have been collecting signatures at this event,” he said. “I don’t think their political agenda should have been on display at what appeared to be a state-sanctioned event. They crossed the line on that.”
But Porter said as long as the group is staying away from politics, he’s fine with it controlling the auction.
“The question we have to ask as legislators from an audit standpoint is are the funds being used like they’re supposed to,” he said. “Are they being used non-politically? As far as I’m concerned, as long as it is in a separate account and being used for its specific purpose, I’m fine with it.”
Porter said he would not support the state taking control of the auction.
“I think it’s very important that we have a neutral third party running that Report All Poachers program so we don’t’ have that appearance that Game and Fish is benefiting from that seizure of property,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we keep that separate.”
Contact Rob Port at firstname.lastname@example.org