Conrad backs nominee tied to alleged ‘pay-to-play’ deal in N.D.

Kent Conrad

FARGO – Sen. Kent Conrad tells The Forum he doesn’t believe recent allegations against the nominee for Rhode Island’s U.S. District Court, who’s also a trial lawyer accused of taking part in a “pay-to-play” deal in North Dakota.

Conrad joined his Democratic colleagues and 11 Republicans to vote today against a GOP filibuster effort that would’ve stalled the confirmation of John J. McConnell Jr.,  who’s in line to be the next federal judge in Rhode Island. (In contrast, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven voted in favor of allowing the filibuster to move forward.)

Why does the confirmation of a federal judge halfway across the country matter here in North Dakota?

Well, McConnell came under fire this week when Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn called on his colleagues to oppose McConnell’s confirmation – alleging in a floor debate that the trial lawyer “lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation process.”

Cornyn cited McConnell’s past political involvement as the problem. (Read CNN’s recap of the issue for more on the controversy.)

Here in North Dakota, however, conservative supporters are adding weight to the opposition of McConnell’s confirmation. Citing a letter sent by Cornyn to his Republican colleagues,  North Dakota conservatives accuse McConnell of engaging in a “pay-to-play” deal with former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2000 against now-Sen. John Hoeven.

Cornyn’s letter says McConnell contributed $30,000 to Heitkamp’s gubernatorial run after she had appointed McConnell to be a special assistant attorney general “for purposes of representing the State of North Dakota in tobacco litigation.”

Meanwhile, McConnell and his law firm partners allegedly donated an additional $75,000 to North Dakota’s Democratic-NPL Party. Cornyn also wrote that McConnell receives at least $2.5 million annually through 2024 for his role in the tobacco litigation in North Dakota. If the allegations are true, the political arrangement would mean Heitkamp and McConnell both profited through their respective positions.

The Senate is expected to confirm McConnell’s nomination with a vote this evening, but that’s not stopping questions from being raised about potentially illegal political activity here in North Dakota.

Conrad said he stands by McConnell in spite of the accusations being made against him this week.

“Before today, I had never heard of the allegations against Mr. McConnell.  And now that I’ve heard them, I certainly do not believe them,” Conrad told The Forum. “The fact is that Mr. McConnell is completely qualified to be the U.S. District Judge for the District of Rhode Island.  He received strong bipartisan support when he was nominated and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

“And then earlier today more than 60 Senators voted in favor of taking up the McConnell nomination, including many Republicans,” Conrad added. “Mr. McConnell has the character and ability to perform as a district court judge. That is why he received my support.”

Hoeven’s office said the Republican senator will vote against McConnell’s confirmation, as he voted against ending the filibuster earlier today.

“Based on Mr. McConnell’s testimony and published statements, he would be a judicial activist, legislating from the bench, and the Senator doesn’t believe in that judicial approach,” Hoeven’s spokesman Don Canton said.