In ND, legislators' travel not public's business

AP News
|
Posted: Mar 13, 2011 1:02 AM
In ND, legislators' travel not public's business

Bob Stenehjem's job as North Dakota's Senate majority leader has given him a well-stamped passport. It also has made him made him an example of what critics say are the shortcomings of the state's disclosure rules for lawmakers.

The Republican from Bismarck became the focus of criticism when he missed six days of the Legislature in January to take a trip to India, financed by an organization that promotes trade relationships between that country and the United States.

It wasn't the only one. Since he became the GOP's Senate leader a decade ago, Stenehjem (pronounced STEN'-jum) has traveled to Germany, China, Lithuania and other countries at the behest of a corporate-supported nonprofit foundation that arranges educational trips for state legislative leaders. Stenehjem is the foundation's vice chairman.

In North Dakota, lawmakers don't have to disclose such trips as long as they're not financed by taxpayers. Lawmakers often are eligible to claim their daily pay when they are on legislative business, too, and Stenehjem said he did claim his $158 per day on some of his trips.

"It's a huge educational opportunity for leaders," Stenehjem said of the trips, which were reported by The Associated Press after a review of foundation records.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has defeated several proposals in recent years to require lawmakers to disclose trips financed by outside groups. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, would have required lawmakers to disclose the destination and purpose of any outside trip related to public business, as well as the money spent on them.

Marcellais said the mandate would promote "accountability and responsibility" and give residents a glimpse of the lawmaker's activities. Marcellais, who is a former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indian tribe, said the legislation would have required him to disclose trips he made on tribal business.

The Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit watchdog organization, gave North Dakota a failing grade in 2006 when rating disclosure requirements that might be used to determine potential conflicts of interest. The rating was based mostly on disclosure of lawmakers' personal finances, and did not include disclosure of trips financed by interest groups.

Brett Narloch, director of the North Dakota Policy Council, a nonprofit group that promotes limited government and reductions in government spending, said it would be appropriate for the Legislature to require disclosure of lawmaker trips financed by outside groups, if the trip is related to the lawmaker's policymaking role.

"If the place they're going to is going to focus on public policy, then it makes more sense to require them to disclose who might be influencing them," Narloch said.

The trip issue flared previously when GOP lawmakers have missed, and been paid for, legislative work days to attend outside conferences sponsored by interest groups.

In 2003, 16 GOP lawmakers skipped a day of the Legislature to attend a Las Vegas conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-supported organization of conservative state lawmakers.

The current House majority leader, Fargo Rep. Al Carlson, and Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo, the chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that reviews the budgets of most state agencies, are members of the council's board of directors.

Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, found himself in demand as a speaker about the Internet gambling industry after he unsuccessfully pushed a bill during the 2005 Legislature to license and regulate Internet poker in North Dakota.

Kasper attended conferences in Montreal, Las Vegas and Costa Rica in the months after the 2005 session adjourned. Kasper's speaking appearances were advertised in conference materials obtained by The Associated Press, and he confirmed the trips.

Kasper also was part of a group of five North Dakota Republican House members who visited the Caribbean island of Antigua in October 2005 on what they described as an unofficial trade mission. Antigua licenses and regulates Internet gambling companies through its Directorate of Offshore Gaming.

Stenehjem's foreign trips have mostly been arranged by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, based in Centerville, Mass., a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation that puts on educational programs for legislative leaders. The programs are usually affiliated with universities.

Besides Stenehjem sitting as the foundation's vice chairman, Carlson, the House GOP majority leader, is on its board of directors, according to the foundation's website.

It is supported mostly by private business donors that are part of its "advisory council," including pharmaceutical, financial and consumer goods companies. Among its supporters are Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Walgreen Co., Procter & Gamble Co. and Archer Daniels Midland Co.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Walgreen Co. have been heavily involved in efforts to repeal North Dakota's restrictions on pharmacy ownership, which prevent large retailers from owning pharmacies within their own stores. The North Dakota House has defeated the last two repeal measures; the Senate never considered them.

Of the 57 companies or trade associations that the State Legislative Leaders Foundation lists as supporters, 11 hired lobbyists to represent their interests during the 2009 or 2011 sessions of the North Dakota Legislature. One of them was Stenehjem's brother, Allan Stenehjem, who is a lobbyist for Reynolds American Inc., a tobacco company.

Stenehjem said the foundation's programs are intended to give legislative leaders "a broader perspective of what's happening, as we have to compete in the world market."

"Yeah, I can sit at home under a mushroom here in North Dakota and not get involved in anything, or you can get involved in these things and maybe have a bigger grasp of how big things really are," Stenehjem said.