Ethics for Thee but not for Me

North Dakota’s Governor Doug Burgum has reimbursed Xcel Engery $37,000 for the Super Bowl tickets he and the First Lady were gifted last week. $37,000! The decision comes after almost a week of questions about whether or not this was ethical. In the end, Burgum did the right thing by paying for the tickets. Still, we need to dive into this example for a couple of reasons.

First, let’s point out that Burgum did not try and hide this gift. The news of him attending the Super Bowl broke last week. Spokesman Mike Nowatski was direct with Patrick Springer of the Forum saying Burgum would not be paying for their tickets. There was no attempt to cover this up and that needs to be recognized.

Because the Governor’s office was open about it – Burgum even took selfies near the field of U.S. Bank Stadium – it allowed the public to debate whether or not they were comfortable with the gift. Turns out, a great deal of them weren’t.

That leads me to this; how do we know whether or not something along these lines happened with previous administrations? We don’t know what we don’t know. Would previous administrations have been public about it in the age before politicians relied so heavily on social media? What we do know is there was no ethics policy left behind from the Dalrymple administration according to Nowatski.

Second, the response to this gift. The revelation the Governor’s office does not currently have an ethics policy has led to a bandwagon of people calling for something to be done. Some of the same people that bemoan the idea of ethical oversight have been quick to pounce on Burgum and the Executive branch. One of the people being critical of Burgum is Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner. Yet in the same moment, Wardner scoffed at the idea of safeguards on ethics for the Legislature. Why is it important for the Governor’s office, but not the Legislature? Ethics for thee but not for me.

Burgum took corrective action because the public was aware. What if the public didn’t know? What if it was just the well-connected in Bismarck that knew about it? The wink and nod culture from the “good old boys” that has perpetuated state government. Would it see the light of day with the group that constantly has each other’s backs? Would anything have been done?

Even if the Governor’s office creates a policy on ethics, who enforces it? The Governor? What if it’s their behavior that is called into question? There are a lot of questions. Questions that the public deserves answers to. A policy just like a law means nothing without impartial enforcement. That’s why seriously considering an independent body to oversee ethics in state government makes sense.

Tyler Axness
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