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Bribery of Legislators

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One of the most dramatic punishments meted out in the North Dakota Legislature was against a life insurance agent convicted of attempting to bribe state lawmakers.

It all happened in a few days during the 1913 legislative session in Bismarck. Ben Ness was accused of offering $3,000 to two representatives to defeat a bill that would prohibit and penalize the sale of tobacco. He had allegedly made the bribe on behalf of a tobacco company. He was arrested and jailed. A House select committee began an investigation, and concluded that no one took the bribe.

Ness faced an all-day hearing in the House of Representatives. His attorney argued that Ness “had been in an intoxicated condition for a number of days,” and could not be responsible for his actions. Several witnesses testified, including state representatives and a House stenographer. Allegations of previous bribery also came out in the hearing.

The House unanimously convicted Ness of “contempt of and breach of the privileges of this House and its members by attempting to corrupt the integrity of its members.” The House sentenced him to two days in jail. But that wasn’t the end of it. Ness also faced Burleigh County charges for the bribery. Again, he was convicted. The judge sentenced him to pay a $500 fine or go to jail for 30 days. Ness paid the fine. On this date in 1913, the House exonerated the representatives Ness tried to bribe. The episode was reportedly the first in state history to result in charges for attempted bribery of state lawmakers.

Six years later, in 1919, the House investigated a case involving a representative being offered $2,000 to vote against bills establishing the Industrial Commission and the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. The house member refused to say who offered him the money, and without enough evidence to prosecute, the matter was dropped.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Sources:

Grand Forks Herald. 1913, February 25. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1913, February 28. Pages 1, 4

The Bismarck Tribune. 1913, March 1. Page 4

Grand Forks Herald. 1913, March 12. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1913, June 1. Page 1

Courier Democrat. 1913, June 5. Page 2

The Bismarck Tribune. 1913, July 1. Page 5

The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, February 17. Pages 1, 2

1913 Journal of the House

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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