Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak is being accused of breaking the law for filming a re-election campaign video inside the state capitol building and using the state seal in a campaign ad.
The North Dakota Century Code defines a “corrupt practice” as “the use of state services or property … for political purposes.”
The law also makes it a class B misdemeanor to “use the great seal for any political purpose.”
You’d think that filming an ad inside the state capitol building would be a clear example of using state property for political purposes. But it’s not that simple, and Fedorchak isn’t the only one doing it.
A 1979 North Dakota Supreme Court decision is being seen by some public officials as justification for using their office and parts of the capitol in campaign advertising, according to Democratic candidate for governor Marvin Nelson.
In Saefke v. VandeWalle, the court ruled that Justice Gerald VandeWalle did not break the law when he “presented through the television media a campaign talk to the voters while he was seated at the bench in the Supreme Court and wearing his black robe.” At the time the TV spot aired, VandeWalle was running for election to keep his seat on the court, which he’d been appointed to by the governor in mid-1978. (He is now the court’s chief justice.)
In siding with their colleague Gerald, the justices ruled that the law was meant to protect financial misuse of state property; using the Supreme Court chamber for a “short 30-second video tape” had only a “minuscule” effect.
The problem is that incumbents have an advantage if they can film campaign ads in their office. It confers status and legitimacy. We doubt that whoever was running against VandeWalle that year had the same opportunity to film an ad in the Supreme Court room. State property shouldn’t be exploited for political gain, whether it’s for 30 seconds or 30 minutes.
Here’s a link to Fedorchak’s ad, which was taped in the capitol building. Her Facebook campaign page also includes these two pictures: the first of her in the legislative wing, and the second of her with the state seal (albeit blurry and cropped) behind her.
In a Facebook post today, Nelson writes that Fedorchak should be removed from the ballot for using the state capitol in the ads “and she is guilty of a class b misdemeanor for using the Great Seal of ND for political purposes.
“Now personally, I think that is a bit harsh,” he adds, “but that is the law. I think we should have an Ethics Commission who could fine her and make her stop.”
It’s not only Fedorchak using the capitol as her personal film studio. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem taped ads in the capitol’s legislative wing and his office during the primary, Nelson notes.
We reached out to Fedorchak for comment and will update if we hear back. The Public Service Commission regulates pipelines and other utilities.