ND Ethics Commission confused about their own authority

Published: Feb. 20, 2020 at 7:06 PM CST
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The state Ethics Commission was created to oversee and investigate campaign finance violations.

Six months later, members have come across another hurdle that may take years to resolve.

A Commission voted on by the people; constructed by the state legislature; and filled by the governor and Senate leadership. An independent body of people who have never served in the state legislature.

Many hands helped mold the Ethics Commission, but where does their power come from? That's what they are trying to find out.

The biggest issue facing the commission is that they don't have subpoena powers. Meaning, they only info they can collect is through Open Records Requests. They can ask a person to give other requested documents, but what if the party doesn't cooperate?

"If you uniquely possess the information that is relevant to this complaint and the Ethics Commission's investigation, and you choose not to give it to us, it may result in a negative inference,” said Commissioner Paul Richard.

Much of their power and authority can only come from the state legislature granting them those powers. but those extended powers or clarity can't be expanded until the next session in 2021.

"It would be good to have that power, We'd never use it, but if it's there and a certain case comes up that you needed that, you'd have it available. So I'd like to see us pursue that in the legislature,” said Commissioner Ward Koeser.

However, if an investigation finds a violation or criminal misconduct, they don't have the power to penalize anyone. They can, however, forward their findings to law enforcement.

Another issue has been how to protect the identities of accusers.

The solution? Two avenues for info collection. One path is for accusers, anyone, to file complaints, but the accusers must give their names and contact information; resulting in an confidential, but not anonymous, investigation. The other path is for info collection and whistle blowing; where individuals can remain anonymous, but with no guarantee of an investigation.