Editor’s Note: This story was provided by the Center for Public Integrity as part of the Center’s State Integrity Investigation.
By Tu-Uyen Tran, Center for Public Integrity
When Ben Hanson ran for state House in 2012, he could hardly believe that his campaign war chest could be spent on absolutely anything.
Unlike nearly all other states, North Dakota had no laws restricting the use of campaign funds.
“I was appalled at that,” Hanson said recently, explaining why he set out earlier this year to ban such funds from being used for personal reasons. The Democrat from West Fargo said he worked hard to get bipartisan sponsorship only to have his bill voted down by the chamber’s Republican supermajority.
What especially irked him, he said, was the reason given by opponents.
“I’ve been here since 2001, I’ve never heard of any of my colleagues both from the Democrat side and the Republican side discussing the fact that they had ever done anything like that and I don’t suspect that anybody would,” Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, said of treating campaign contributions as a personal slush fund. He spoke last February, just before the House voted, 65-26, to kill the bill.
“It’s kind of like saying everybody knows you’re supposed to stop at a red light so we’re just not going to have a law that says so,” Hanson said recently.
Kasper heads the House committee that vets proposed ethics laws and its recommendations carry significant weight with state representatives. He did not return repeated calls for comment.
Hanson said he wasn’t all that surprised with how the vote went, noting that the legislature has for years rejected calls for reforms to the state’s ethics laws. He also expressed alarm at the tremendous amount of outside money pouring into state politics, thanks to the oil boom here.
In the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity that examines transparency and accountability, North Dakota ranked 37th among the 50 states with a score of 60, a D-. The low grade doesn’t suggest the presence of corruption, but indicates that the state’s institutions are ill equipped to fight corruption should it emerge.
Many of the probe’s findings echo previous results.
In the first State Integrity probe in 2012, North Dakota ranked 43rd with a score of 58, an F. Then as now, some of the lowest scores involved a lack of oversight of money in politics. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
The latest investigation found that North Dakota’s campaign finance laws are still weak. Candidates may accept as much money as someone is willing to give and may spend it however they please. Contributions aren’t audited other than having the secretary of state’s office make sure the figures add up. And candidates need never report how they spend the money; a bill requiring spending to be disclosed was voted down along party lines the same day Hanson’s bill was voted down.
With few laws or practices to check the influence of money on North Dakota politics, elected officials are simply expected to use their own best judgment. “The resolution of ethical problems must rest largely in the individual conscience,” advises the Legislative Manual, which lists rules for lawmakers.
Like many states, North Dakota requires elected officials to disclose their business interests. But the latest State Integrity Investigation found those disclosures to be severely limited. Officials are only required to file a disclosure form when they run, which could be as infrequently as once a decade for a state Supreme Court justice. They need only disclose their main source of income and the names of businesses in which they have a financial interest— but not how much interest.
In addition, their disclosures are never audited.
But North Dakota did receive high marks for its oversight of elections, ranking best among all states with 87 points in that category, a grade of B+. That stood in stark contrast to its oversight of campaign financing, in which it ranked 45th with 40 points, an F. The election oversight category was new to the 2015 investigation.
The secretary of state’s office received credit for its independence and effective monitoring of elections. It also scored high marks for providing election results online with up-to-the-minute results.
Many North Dakotans are used to thinking of their state as a collection of small towns where elected officials are bankers, ranchers or farm implement dealers they know from down the road. In a 2013 poll, the Gallup organization found that North Dakotans had more trust in their state government than the residents of any other state, with 77 percent reporting a great deal or a fair amount of trust.
“The fact that we haven’t had problems and state government is relatively small means most of the mechanisms that have evolved and are in place in other states just haven’t come here yet,” said Robert “Bo” Wood, a pollster and political scientist at the University of North Dakota.
But the state is changing rapidly and so is its political landscape. For decades, North Dakota had been a largely overlooked rural state with a declining population. As late as 2007, lawmakers were debating the use of free tuition in a desperate bid to keep young people from leaving.
The oil boom that began to accelerate in 2009 brought massive changes. The last census estimate in 2014 put the state population at 739,000 residents, 100,000 more than a decade ago. The boom also brought more money into state politics. In 2014, the last election year, political donors gave $18.1 million, more than three times as much as they did a decade ago. In 2012, in the peak of the oil boom, donors gave $30.4 million—not a lot compared to many Midwestern states, but huge by North Dakota standards.
“The potential for corruption is staggering,” said Hanson, who added that the $10,000 he raised was plenty to get his message out. “We need to be above the appearance of corruptibility as public officials.”
But Democrats like Hanson face an uphill battle convincing the legislature’s Republican supermajority of the need for better ethics laws. Bills seeking to create an ethics committee have been voted down along party lines in each of the last three legislative sessions. Bills seeking to require disclosure of campaign spending were also voted down along party lines in the last three sessions.
“It’s almost like, ‘If we institute a solution, then we’re admitting there’s a problem and we don’t really feel like there’s a problem,’” said Rob Port, proprietor of the conservative Say Anything Blog. He said it’s true that a lot of ethics reforms are proposed by Democrats — and he doesn’t agree with all of them — but he faulted Republicans for dismissing even the ones that should square with their conservative beliefs, such as disclosures of campaign spending.
There probably isn’t any corruption, Port said, but the dearth of information makes it impossible to know.
“Who knows, sometimes with this sort of thing you need a massive scandal, some horrible event that happens just for people to take action, and I don’t think we’ve seen one of those for a while,” said Nicholas Bauroth, a political scientist at North Dakota State University. “It doesn’t mean it’s not happened. You just don’t see it.”
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. It is part of State Integrity 2015. How do each state’s laws and practices deter corruption, promote transparency and enforce accountability? Click here to read more stories in this investigation.