PSC gets a pass on campaign contributions, by a technicality

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PSC gets a pass on campaign contributions, by a technicality

But, judge calls PSC commissioners’ actions “ill-advised, devoid of common sense”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 22, 2013

Bismarck, ND — In a disappointing ruling from a federal judge, the state Public Service Commission got a free pass for accepting campaign donations from coal companies they regulate.  But, the judge also made a strong statement that concerns about PSC commissioners’ actions are legitimate.

Linda Weiss of Belfield, Chair of Dakota Resource Council’s Board of Directors said, “Obviously, the judge ruled on a technicality of the law rather than the intent and spirit of the law. Federal law is clear that regulators are prohibited from accepting gifts from coal companies. In North Dakota they apparently found a way to get around the law, at least for a while.”

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland addressed these concerns when he wrote, This order should in no manner be construed as an endorsement of the practice of PSC commissioners accepting campaign contributions from individuals or political action committees closely associated with coal companies and coal mining activities. Although the acceptance of campaign contributions from such entities may be lawful and in compliance with SMCRA and North Dakota law, the decision to do so is ill-advised, devoid of common sense, and raises legitimate questions as to the appearance of impropriety.”

For the past two years, Dakota Resource Council and the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club have been challenging state PSC commissioners’ acceptance of $54,000 in campaign contributions from coal companies that the PSC regulates. This included over $16,000 taken by Commissioners Kevin Cramer and Brian Kalk from owners and employees of South Heart Coal, LLC, which had a pending permit application with the PSC. When commissioners failed to return the contributions and the Interior Department was clear they were not interested in enforcing that law, the groups filed the lawsuit in May 2012.

Wayne Fisher, a farmer near South Heart and member of Neighbors United, is frustrated about the outcome of the decision.  He said, “The case was about making federal and state government follow the law. Most North Dakotans would agree that PSC commissioners should not be taking money from companies they regulate.  It’s frustrating to me that we live in a state where money and power rules and North Dakota citizens can’t even trust their own government to not wiggle out of following the law.”

For over a year, the Secretary of the Interior and PSC have been in litigation, spending over $150,000 of taxpayer money for a high priced law firm out of Denver, Colorado to defend their actions.

“This issue should have never reached the courts in the first place, and it provides yet another example of why North Dakota needs an ethics commission to address these types of conflicts between citizens and government,” said Wayde Schafer, Organizing Representative of Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club “But once again, it’s the people who have to take action and make sure that the government is following the laws of the land.”

The law did not allow for any other remedy by a citizen lawsuit than to request the Interior Department to step in and make the state PSC follow the law. Once that was accomplished on the issue of campaign contributions, the PSC obviously would have regained the power to implement surface mining regulations. Alternatively, the judge could have required the agencies to fix the campaign contribution violations in a simpler way.

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