ND Republicans elect PSC’er as new chairman; Democrats call it a ‘clear conflict of interest’

Tony Clark

FARGO – North Dakota Republicans have unanimously elected Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark as the state party’s new chairman – an act that’s drawn heavy criticism tonight from state Democrats who argue public service commissioners should remain impartial regulators.

Clark replaces outgoing party chairman Gary Emineth, who resigned earlier this month to focus on his business interests.

“This election cycle presents our party the opportunity to put Gov. John Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg in Congress and to assert fiscal responsibility in Washington DC,” Clark said in the GOP’s announcement tonight. “I am excited with the direction of the party and our crop of candidates, and look forward to working with them this fall.”

Brad Crabtree, the Democratic-NPL‘s candidate for public service commission said Clark’s election to the GOP chairmanship “marks a breach of faith with the people of North Dakota.”

Crabtree is running against Republican incumbent Commissioner Kevin Cramer. Clark’s seat is up for re-election in two years. The third commissioner, Brian Kalk, is also a Republican and was elected in 2008.

Crabtree released this statement to North Dakota media tonight, following the GOP’s announcement:

“Today is a sad day for the Public Service Commission and for the integrity of state government in North Dakota. The nomination of Tony Clark to chair a political party, while actively serving on the PSC, marks a breach of faith with the people of North Dakota by openly politicizing what should be the nonpartisan regulatory role of the PSC.”

“Public Service Commissioners are the closest thing we have to judges in the executive branch of government. North Dakotans have the expectation that their PSC commissioners will review the facts of a case and apply the law in an objective, transparent and nonpartisan fashion, regardless of the political beliefs of those who come before the Commission, or of those who are affected by its decisions. The public cannot have this trust in the PSC when one of its members is publicly serving and advocating for the interests of a particular political party.”

“The decision by Clark to serve in the role of a political party chair marks the latest in a series of disturbing partisan incidents and actions over the past year and a half. Ever since former Commissioner Susan Wefald retired from the PSC in 2008, we have witnessed the transformation of an independent regulatory agency into an openly ideological, partisan and activist enterprise.”

“That Clark would assume such an overtly political role confirms what I have said since announcing my candidacy in February: my opponent Kevin Cramer and his fellow commissioners have lost sight of the critical independent, nonpartisan role a responsible regulatory agency must play. They have debased the Public Service Commission in the process.”

“During my entire professional career in North Dakota, I have never engaged publicly in partisan political activity. If elected, I will dedicate myself to restoring integrity, public trust and nonpartisan accountability to the Public Service Commission.”

Meanwhile, Democratic-NPL chairman Mark Schneider said the GOP’s actions tonight “truly shows the arrogance of the Republican Party in North Dakota right now.”

“Less than 100 days from the election, they made a person their chair who was elected to be an impartial regulator, almost like a judge,” Schneider said. “Tony Clark will now be traveling around the state soliciting donations from the very people that he is supposed to regulate. That is a clear conflict of interest that hurts the integrity of the Public Service Commission at a time when it is already more partisan than ever. Not to mention the fact that clearly Clark doesn’t think that his taxpayer-funded position is a full time job.”

Schneider continued, “Two out of three members of the PSC have served or are serving as Republican party chair. Now more than ever we need someone like Brad Crabtree on the Commission, who is not political and is an expert in his field, as opposed to people using the PSC as a stepping stone to higher partisan office. We can’t have the Republican Party being run out of the North Dakota capitol.”