WILLISTON, N.D. – Residents of Dunn County want a grand jury to decide if campaign contributions Gov. Jack Dalrymple accepted from the oil industry may be considered bribery.
More than 170 residents signed a petition submitted today that could force the Dunn County District Court to convene a grand jury and consider whether Dalrymple should be prosecuted under Class C felony bribery statutes.
The petition, which uses a state statute that may not have been used in decades, stems from money Dalrymple’s campaign accepted while he was also serving as the head of the North Dakota Industrial Commission.
The petition effort has ties to the campaigns of two Dalrymple challengers in the Nov. 6 election.
Lisa Guenther, clerk of court for Dunn County, said she received documents Wednesday, but they were not yet filed as an official record. Because the documents involve criminal allegations, Guenther said Dunn County State’s Attorney Ross Sundeen will review the documents before they are filed.
Sundeen did not return a call seeking comment late Wednesday.
A report written by two Grand Forks attorneys raises questions about $81,600 in campaign contributions that were accepted in late 2011 through May 2012, the same time Dalrymple and other Industrial Commission members were considering a controversial Dunn County case that involved a large area designated for oil development that included Little Missouri State Park.
The commission gave oil developers a favorable ruling.
Attorney David Thompson, who wrote the report with recent law school graduate Erik Escarraman, equates the campaign contributions to bribing a judge. The contributions came from people who had an interest in a pending administrative case that Dalrymple presides over, Thompson said.
“We’re deeply concerned about the influence of oil in corrupting our political process and extreme amounts of money that are now in play,” said Thompson, who said he and Escarraman are not affiliated with any campaign.
Dalrymple was unavailable for comment late Wednesday after the petition was submitted.
Amanda Godfread, communications director for Dalrymple’s campaign, said Wednesday she could not comment on the petition because she hadn’t seen it. But she said there was no connection between campaign contributions and the Industrial Commission’s decision.
“The governor has a record of transparency and integrity and a record of what’s doing best for North Dakota,” Godfread said. “To suggest otherwise is simply untrue.”
Former Dunn County resident Nikki McAlpin said she submitted the petition to the clerk of court in Dunn County with more than 170 signatures. McAlpin, a former volunteer for Dalrymple challenger Paul Sorum’s campaign, said she delivered the petition because she also has concerns about the campaign contributions.
“We’re tired of the corruption,” McAlpin said.
The petition process started when Sorum, an independent candidate for governor, received the attorneys’ report anonymously, Sorum said Wednesday. Sorum then contacted Thompson and citizens of Dunn County about a petition-initiated grand jury.
A state law that Thompson doesn’t believe has been used since 1929 states citizens can initiate a grand jury process with 10 percent of signatures from the most recent gubernatorial election. Dunn County had 1,670 voters in 2008.
“I’m not saying Mr. Dalrymple is guilty,” Sorum said. “But I am saying that we have some big problems here and if we want to preserve freedom and have real elections, clearly there are some conflicts of interest in these areas and we need them looked at objectively by citizens.”
The attorneys’ report focuses on contributions made by Continental Resources employees, including a $20,000 gift from CEO Harold Hamm, as well as contributions from other oil companies who had an interest in a spacing unit near Killdeer.
Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Co. petitioned to develop nearly 31,000 acres as one large unit as opposed to developing typical 1,280-acre spacing units. Several companies have interests in the “mega-unit,” but Burlington has more than 68 percent of working interest.
The proposal went before the Industrial Commission, which consists of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.
The attorneys’ report alleges that contributions the Dalrymple campaign accepted at the same time that a decision on the unit was imminent is bribery, a Class C felony.
Thompson said the bribery statutes say there does not have to be evidence of a quid pro quo to be considered bribery under the statute.
Thompson particularly calls attention to the fact that the decision to approve the unit came eight days after Hamm’s $20,000 campaign contribution. Other contributions he ties to the unit include a $25,000 gift from John Hess, CEO of Hess Corp., and other donations that add up to $81,600.
However, Continental Resources had about 4 percent of working interest in the unit, according to documents filed in the case.
Conoco Phillips, parent company of Burlington Resources, is tied to a $1,000 donation from the Conoco Phillips Spirit PAC.
Thompson said the amount of interest the companies have isn’t relevant under the bribery statute.
Kristin Miskovsky, Continental Resources vice president for public relations, called the bribery allegations outrageous.
“We have a code of ethics policy and we take it very seriously,” Miskovsky said. “It is an absolutely outrageous allegation and totally false.”
John Morrison, the attorney for Burlington Resources and Conoco Phillips, declined to comment about the attorneys’ report.
Sorum, a Tea Party member who recently moved from Fargo to Bismarck, sought the Republican endorsement for governor, but received 478 votes to Dalrymple’s 1,128.
He said the petition effort is bipartisan.
“It’s not Democrats or Republicans. It’s not Ron Paul supporters. It’s citizens who are doing it,” Sorum said.
Ellen Chaffee, lieutenant governor candidate on Democratic challenger Ryan Taylor’s ticket, also is connected to this case.
Chaffee’s husband, David Schwalbe, is a native of Killdeer and his family’s ranch is within the unit. Chaffee said she talked to Thompson about her concerns about how the unit was approved, which led to Thompson working on the report.
Chaffee said Wednesday she is not involved with the petition, but said she is glad the residents made the effort.
“I am deeply grateful to the citizens of Dunn County for insisting that some official review take place of this kind of behavior,” Chaffee said. “I think it took courage on their part and I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Among the concerns voiced by Dunn County residents about the proposal were the timely development for mineral owners and the loss of surface owners’ rights to negotiate where wells and associated pipelines and other infrastructure would be placed.
Forum Communications reviewed the audio for the Dec. 20 hearing when the industrial commission unanimously approved the unit.
Lynn Helms, director of Mineral Resources, recommended approval of the unit because it would reduce the impact to Little Missouri State Park and “minimizes the footprint” of oil development.
During the approximately 30-minute discussion, Dalrymple asked several questions about how landowners and mineral owners would be affected before voting to approve it.
“I think there are a few things that make this situation unique. Not the least of which is the opportunity to preserve the viewscape around the Little Missouri River,” Dalrymple said during the hearing. “But I certainly am not voting for it with the idea that this is a model or a precedent for other situations.”
Bob and Candyce Kleemann, who attended the hearing and were among people who wrote letters opposing the spacing unit, said creating the mega-unit took away surface owners’ rights.
“I’m a Republican but I’m going to vote for Ryan this time,” Bob Kleemann said this week. “He (Dalrymple) took the rights away from the people who live in that 31,000 acres.”
Thompson said he emailed his document to U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon on Oct. 8. Purdon confirmed this week that his office received the document, but he said he could not comment further.
“The Department of Justice does not ordinarily confirm or deny the existence of an investigation and we will not do so in this matter,” Purdon said.
About the petition law
North Dakota law spells outs how county residents can use a petition to convene a grand jury. The petition must be signed by eligible voters, with at least as many signatures as 10 percent of the total number of votes cast for governor in the most recent general election. Dunn County had 1,670 voters in 2008, meaning 167 signatures were required.
What the North Dakota Century Code says about grand juries:
29-10.1-02 When grand jury may be called
No grand jury may be drawn, summoned, or convened in any county within the state unless the district judge thereof shall so direct by a written order filed with the clerk of the court in the county wherein the said grand jury is required to attend. Any judge of the district court for any county must direct, in the manner herein provided, that a grand jury be drawn and summoned to attend whenever:
1. The judge deems the attendance of a grand jury necessary for the due enforcement of the laws of the state;
2. The board of county commissioners of the county wherein the court is to be held, in writing, requests the judge so to do; or
3. A petition in writing requesting the same is presented to the judge, signed by qualified electors of the county equal in number to at least ten percent of the total vote cast in the county for the office of governor of the state at the last general election.