More Transparency, Not Less Political Speech


The group behind the petition to empanel a grand jury to investigate Governor Jack Dalrymple for accepting contributions from individuals and businesses that he also governs is appealing the dismissal of their case. State law allows for grand jury proceedings to be initiated through a number of petition signatures equal to a certain percentage of ballots cast for governor in a given country. This group’s petitions were tossed out after a judge found that many of them weren’t from the county in question – Dunn County – and that more had no proper address information to ensure that the signers were, in fact, from inside the country.

For some reason this group – which includes a Grand Forks lawyer who has worked for former Democrat PSC candidate Brad Crabtree as well as erstwhile Republican and challenger to Dalrymple on an independent ticket Paul Sorum – thinks their signatures didn’t need proper addresses, nor need to be from within the county itself.

Which speaks pretty loudly, I think, to the caliber of legal thinking that has gone into this sorry enterprise.

At the heart of the accusations is the idea that those who are governed shouldn’t influence those who govern with their political contributions. Some might be quick to agree with that notion when we’re talking about oil industry interests showering big money down on candidates like Dalrymple, but it’s a difficult standard to square with notions about free speech.

After all, aren’t we all governed by these politicians? Which industry, which group of citizens, existing in North Dakota isn’t governed by the governor? To apply this thinking consistently, no teacher or police officer or newspaper reporter in the state would be able to give money to the governor because it could be argued that the governor sets policy that impacts our lives and livelihoods.

Thus, we all have a conflict of interest. Sure, some more than others, but issues of free speech shouldn’t hinge upon measures of degree. Just because an oil executive might have more at stake than, say, a janitor doesn’t mean that we can restrict the speech of one and not the other.

And this is a speech issue. The Supreme Court has ruled, unequivocally and in multiple cases including Citizens United vs. The FEC, that political contributions are a form of political speech. There’s no getting around it. My right to support politicians with my money, or my company’s money, is inseparable from my right to support politicians with my words.

But that isn’t to say that there isn’t legitimate reason to be concerned. One can recognize that political contributions shouldn’t be counted as bribes, but also feel uneasy about the sheer amount of money in politics.

So how do we balance concerns about influence buying with speech rights? In a word, transparency.

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with former Lt. Governor Lloyd Omdahl, but he points out in his latest column that the best way to address concerns over the oil industry (or any other interest) exerting too much influence in state politics is for better disclosure laws:

Considering all of the political, legal and constitutional restraints involved in eliminating conflicts of interest created by campaign contributions, it makes sense to turn to something that is achievable: instant disclosure of campaign contributions.

Our present campaign reports are too slow to be useful in political campaigns. By the time a suspicious contribution is reported, the campaign is over and the receiving candidates escape accountability.

With the Internet, it has become feasible to require daily posting of reports of campaign contributions. This would make it possible for improper contributions to be a matter of debate during the campaign.

Voters then could consider whether a candidate has created a conflict of interest serious enough for that candidate to be turned down in an election.

Exactly. The answer isn’t to limit political speech, but rather to make that speech (in the form of contributions) more transparent and accessible to the public.

Accusations made by the campaign by Crabtree as well as Democrat House candidate Pam Gulleson, alleging that Representative-elect Kevin Cramer had taken unethical contributions from mining interests, were covered extensively by the media, and North Dakotans clearly didn’t find Crabtree’s allegations to be all that troubling. They elected Cramer by a wide margin.

That’s the key. Allow the contributions to be disclosed in a thorough and timely manner, and then let voters decide if they think a given politician is too in the thrall of one interest or another.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • Thresherman

    The behavior of the litigants is hardly unusual in Democratic politics as to using the courts to hamstring the Republican winner of an election. In Alaska, Sarah Palin was subjected to a relentless avalanche of baseless, frivolent and fraudulent ethics suits, the vast majority of which were filed by a couple of Democratic operatives. Though they were found to be without merit, the cost of litigation, much of which she and her staff were personally responsible for, resulted many of her staff having to resign or face bankruptcy. Additionally, the time she had to spend in litigation over these suits resulted in her being unable to fulfill the duties to which she was elected, which was the goal of those filing the lawsuits in the first place. When she did the honorable thing and stepped down so the business of the people of Alaska could be conducted, the Democrats then proceeded to slander her for being the victim of their dirty tricks campaign.

    Now were are seeing the beginnings of the same thing here, a few Democratic operatives are trying to hamstring an elected Governor by a lawsuit without merit. The appeal, which seems to be absurd on the face of itself, makes sense if if your goal is to engage in senseless acts of political retribution. Suppose they prevail and it is judged that the addresses need not be correct and the the petitioners need not be from the county? Then the floodgates are open and Democratic dirty tricks squads can litigate the state government to a standstill. Hopefully wiser heads will prevail, but this demonstrates the Democrats desire to not be constrained by the ballot box in their quest for power.

  • Neiman

    Absent a clear and convincing quid pro quo, isn’t it all but impossible for any legislator or government executive to not, and often, make decisions that will benefit or harm contributors in some way? I am not for illegal influence peddling or buying votes, no matter the party; but, it seems that, as I have often said here, if a liberal simply makes an accusation against a conservative that accusation alone to the media and eventually many voters, is the same thing as absolute, incontestable proof of guilt. So, liberals are encouraged to make false accusations, knowing that no matter what, something will at least appear to stick and hurt conservatives. I think there ought to a law protecting against such false accusations against people in elective office that says, if the charge is not proven in a court of law, the accuser and any organization they represent must pay all legal fees and a fine for making frivolous charges.

  • Roy_Bean

    Maybe we need a Federal Grand Jury. When they finish looking at the Dalrymple they could look at the SEIU contributions to Obama. Then they could look at the AFL-CIO to see if any member dues were improperly funneled to any democrats. We could see if AlGore would profit from the carbon tax and if our own Bradford Crabtree got any money from anyone selling windmills.

    Republicans need to learn to fight back and an injunction against Liedi Heitkamp taking office until the question of illegal rides to the polls is answered would be a good start.

    • dakotacyr

      time to up your medication!

  • common sense North Dakota

    Rob you could not be more wrong, There were only seven signatures the judge disqualified, which made the petition short by 1, He also claimed that Po. Boxes do not qualify. But if you read the grand jury statue you would learn the Judge does not even have the power to do what he did, The Grand Jury is outside of the judiciary. The purpose it to allow citizens to go after public corruption, just common sense. As for the Dunn county case a new petition has already been done, the citizens do not seem to agree with you. And the thing you seem to keep leaving out is the unitization of 37,000 acres which has never been done. You seem to have a short memory about Jack and the Indusrial Commission which came out to stop GO bonds to help Defeat Measure 2. Why do you think Ed Schafer Got 800,000 to work on lowering the extraction Tax. Trust me the players that defeated measure 2 are in line for their pay off. Its already started, all property tax relief is out the window,yet we can spent 2 billion more on more government. What happened to the argument of us losing the oil boom. Were is the three legged stool. We can spend 2 billion more without raising taxes.

    • Rob

      the citizens do not seem to agree with you

      Maybe 180 citizens don’t agree with me.

      And how do you know what Ed Schafer got to work on lowering the extraction tax? And what does it matter if he did get paid? It’s a good idea. The tax is too high, and too complicated, and those interested in limited government should be in the business of promoting lower, flatter taxes.

      You guys are off the deep end of this, and every time these fool’s errands get slapped down you claim some sort of a conspiracy in the courts.

      Maybe you’re just not winning the argument. I supported Measure 2. It didn’t lose because of GO bonds. It lost because we lost the argument.

      The governor didn’t open up state land to oil extraction because he was bribed. He is supported by the oil industry because he supports opening up more land for oil extraction. Don’t like that? Help someone else get elected.

      That’s how democracy works. Not trying to make people you disagree with criminals.

  • Dan

    Oil & coal industries contribute to the party/candidate(s) that does’t/don’t want to shut them down. Not a political decision…a business decision.

    Really, I don’t see Colonel Sanders (aka KFC) making contributions to PETA anytime soon. Same difference. Ya don’t give of your resources to those who will work against you best interests.

    • Rob

      Exactly, well said.

  • guest

    The Dickinson State University scandal looks to be more than an “unfortunate distraction” governor.