Corruption, Cramer, and the PSC

If you want a picture of modern day corruption in politics, you don’t have to look further than the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

North Dakotan sensibilities are being rattled as they read headlines involving violations of federal surface mining laws and bribery of regulatory officials But that’s just what is happening in North Dakota today.  Primarily, problems of purchasing influence with public officials is something that you can anticipate with the booming energy industry in North Dakota.   Coal and oil have long held a significant place in North Dakota energy production.  But with the growing wind energy industry and now dramatic developments in oil exploration and production that has caused money to flow faster than gas flared into the midnight skies, the sleazy underbelly of money driven political influence is coming to light.

Case in point – GOP Congressional Candidate Kevin Cramer was called out by Democratic-NPL Public Service Commission Candidate Brad Crabtree for violating the spirit, if not the legality, of North Dakota’s bribery statute.  Providing expert documentation and legal research, Crabtree laid out a case that would make most courtroom attorney’s jealous.

The relevant North Dakota statute is:

Section 12.1-12-01 NDCC
1. “A person is guilty of bribery, a class C felony, if he knowingly . . . solicits, accepts, or agrees to accept from another, a thing of value as consideration for:
a. The recipient’s official action as a public servant; or
b. The recipient’s violation of a known legal duty as a public servant.”

AND
3. “A prima facie case is established under this section upon proof that the actor knew that a thing of pecuniary value was . . . solicited, accepted, or agreed to be accepted from, a person having an interest in an imminent or pending: a. examination, investigation, arrest, or judicial or administrative proceeding . . . and that interest could be affected by the recipient’s performance or nonperformance of his official action or violation of his known legal duty as a public servant.

 

In what appears to meet the “prima facie case” for bribery under the statute, Congressional Candidate Cramer and his colleagues on the PSC have been soliciting and accepting political contributions from related energy companies all the while those same companies had open cases before the regulatory commission.  Crabtree points out that since 2004, Commissioners Cramer and Kalk (primarily Cramer) received more than $84,000 in political contributions from the industries, executives, or family members of executives.  Worse yet, Cramer and his PSC counterpart routinely solicited funding from these same industries during the run up to the primary election that Cramer won.  Now with the endorsement, Cramer has redoubled his efforts to siphon campaign cash – again from these same industries.

The point of bribery statutes such as the one in North Dakota, is that when a regulatory matter comes before a regulating body (elected or appointed), citizens have an expectation that those decisions will be made on a factual basis, not because of purchased influence.  In the case of the North Dakota PSC, why would anyone believe a regulated utility would receive anything other than the most favorable treatment now that they know how much money was slipped under the table into campaign coffers?

So what is the response from Kevin Cramer?  As anticipated, Cramer denies the pay to play appearance his activities have attracted.  In a response reminiscent of a playground bully caught stealing the bike of a weaker playmate, Cramer appears to issue a challenge rather than speak to the law.  You know the type, ‘So What – You gonna make me!’.

Brad Crabtree recognized these issues of conflict of interest within the PSC vowing not to accept any contributions from industries regulated by the Commission.  He challenged his opponent to do the same, but no response has been forthcoming.

Outside of this nearly forgotten statute Crabtree brought to light, there are virtually no ethics rules for state elected or appointed public officials within North Dakota. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity ranked North Dakota a failing grade for ethics and corruption based on existing laws.  There have been numerous efforts by Democrats to advance standards including the creation of an ethics commission, greater disclosure of campaign contributions, disclosure of industry paid for trips, and disclosure of financial interests.  Republicans routinely defeat such legislation and later crow that the state has little or no corruption.  Of course, it is easy to avoid corruption or ethics violations so long as you have no governing laws or rules!

Cramer’s Congressional campaign must be wearing thin in some circles.  Cramer had earlier frustrated GOP operatives by spurning the Republican nominating convention.  Instead, he went straight to the primary election defeating Mr. Kalk who did receive the party’s endorsement.  While Kalk is under a similar cloud with regard to ethics, his military background seemed better suited to a statewide campaign – especially when it comes to the ‘likeability’ factor.  Cramer is known to have the image of a smarmy attack dog – something clearly not lost within the ranks of the Republican party.

Add lawsuits, corruption, ethics challenges, an unlikeable persona, and endorsements from ultra right wing groups and you have a very flawed candidate in Kevin Cramer. 

Contrast that with his Democratic opponent Pam Gulleson who has a spotless record and pleasing personality and you’ve got a situation where Republicans appear to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a generally red state.