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Dozens apply to serve on North Dakota ethics commission

May 25, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Nearly 70 people applied to serve on a voter-approved ethics commission to oversee the conduct of legislators, statewide officials, candidates and lobbyists, Gov. Doug Burgum’s office announced Saturday.

Those who submitted applications by Friday’s deadline include several former lawmakers, lobbyists, farmers, tribal members, a Boy Scout leader and a newspaper editor. A Minnesota lawyer also applied, but can’t be considered under North Dakota law governing boards and commissions.

The panel is seen as key to implementing a voter-approved constitutional amendment to overhaul North Dakota’s government ethics, despite the Republican-led Legislature’s successful push of its own bill they believed met the requirements of the ballot measure.

Though Democrats and others who pushed for the ethics reform said the GOP version goes against the will of the people, they are holding hope that the new independent commission will write its own rules for ethics reform, which is allowed under the constitutional amendment.

Burgum and Senate majority and minority leaders must agree by consensus on who sits on the five-member panel, which is expected to be chosen by July 1. Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor has not seen the list of applicants and would not comment.

Commission members will be paid a daily rate of $181 when meeting, or the same as lawmakers.

Former lawmakers who have applied include Duane DeKrey, David Drovdal, Eliot Glassheim, Shirley Meyer and Thomas Trenbeath.

Trenbeath was first elected to the Senate in 2000 but left in 2006 to take a job as North Dakota’s chief deputy attorney general. He retired in 2016.

“I don’t think I’d be a bad one to be in there,” Trenbeath said of serving on the panel. “I don’t have an agenda, and even as an elected Republican I could get along with everyone. I’m not an ideologue.”

North Dakota is one of only a handful of states without an ethics commission. Trenbeath said he couldn’t recall any overt ethics violations while he served as a lawmaker.

“But frankly, I probably saw things I wouldn’t do,” he said, but declined to elaborate.

Lawmakers for months debated competing Republican and Democratic proposals before choosing the GOP version shortly before the session ended in April.

Greg Stites, an attorney who worked with measure supporters, is among the applicants. Stites has called the GOP bill unconstitutional and said it doesn’t reflect voters’ intent.

Lawmakers and people registered as lobbyists may not sit on the panel. Stites said he has resigned his position as a lobbyist.

Stites said an ideal candidate will “obviously need to have an excellent reputation and have served in some capacity in public service.”

The panel itself will need “instant credibility,” he said. “The public impression has got to be that it’s not in the pocket of any special interest.”

Michael Sasser, editor of the Minot Daily News, said he applied to the commission almost as a joke.

“I think I’d be the last person on Earth they would pick — I don’t think I have a chance in hell,” Sasser said.

Sasser said he submitted the application knowing he, almost certainly, wouldn’t be selected given his role as a newspaper editor.

But, he said, “the watchdogs need a watchdog, too.”

Sasser said on the outside chance he’s was selected, he wouldn’t have the newspaper cover any of the panel’s action until it was made public.

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