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Published September 13, 2013, 08:26 PM

Ethics complaint against Grand Forks official goes to state

After receiving no reply from the city attorney, a Grand Forks resident has sent a complaint about a City Council member to a higher disciplinary board.

By: Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald

After receiving no reply from the city attorney, a Grand Forks resident has sent a complaint about a City Council member to a higher disciplinary board.

In a letter sent May 15 to City Attorney Howard Swanson, resident Doug Marshall asked for an investigation of his claims that council member and lawyer Doug Christensen voted on city business he should have recused himself from because of professional conflicts of interest.

Two months later, Marshall said he was “appalled” he did not receive confirmation that the city had received it.

“There was no response, zero acknowledgement that they had received the letter,” said Marshall, a former UND aviation professor, consultant and attorney. “You would at least expect something.”

Swanson told the Herald in June he would look into claims outlined in the letter. He did not return a message left Friday at his office.

Dissatisfied with the city’s lack of response, Marshall said he made a copy of the letter and other documentation and sent it on July 30 to the state attorney general’s office and the state Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Board for review.

“If (the city) somehow thought this would go away, it won’t,” Marshall said. “I’m serious about the matter mentioned in the letter.”

State response

While he hasn’t heard from the city to date, Marshall said he has received responses from the attorney general’s office and the disciplinary board.

A few weeks after Marshall sent his letter, the attorney general’s office said it had no jurisdiction and could not assist in the matter.

The disciplinary board indicated it would look into the matter.

Marshall said if cause for investigation is found, the case is assigned to a State Bar Association of North Dakota district inquiry committee that would task a lawyer with investigating and writing a report on the incident.

If the committee finds probable cause in the investigator’s conclusions, it files a petition with the disciplinary board. A formal disciplinary procedure begins and could result in a reprimand for the lawyer in question.

The Northeast Inquiry Committee would be responsible for reviewing Marshall’s complaint.

Committee Chairwoman Sarah Barron would not confirm a complaint had been received, citing confidentiality requirements that are part of the state’s rules for lawyer discipline.

Christensen declined to comment Friday, citing reasons similar to Barron.

Confidentiality applies to all proceedings and reports associated with an allegation of misconduct prior to a petition being filed with the disciplinary board, according to state rules.

There are exceptions if the lawyer waives confidentiality, the proceedings result from a crime conviction, if the allegations have “become generally known to the public,” or involve allegations of disability.

Claims

The six incidents mentioned by Marshall’s letter span more than a decade.

Marshall said he requested and reviewed public records such as meeting minutes to find votes involving potential conflicts of interest.

Several involve Christensen voting in favor of loans or tax incentives for companies Marshall says his firm, Pearson, Christensen & Clapp, was representing at the time.

“On its face, the information appears to be clear conflict of interest on several occasions,” Marshall said.

His letter includes excerpts of state law requiring officials to disclose personal interest in matters involving public spending and contracts.

Christensen has been disciplined for conflict of interest violations in the past.

In 2005, a settlement approved by the North Dakota Supreme Court, found that Christensen or attorneys in his firm represented opposing parties in three cases.

Christensen accepted discipline requiring ethics training and a $3,750 fine as terms of the settlement.

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