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Politics & Government

Accidental conflict of interest for Grand Forks lawmaker averted

Today Prairie Public is beginning a series of occasional reports on “conflicts of interest.”

Some observers say there are bound to be conflicts in a state like North Dakota, which prides itself as “citizen-governed,” with a part-time legislature. In our reporting, we’ll be looking at what may constitute actual or perceived conflicts, and potential ethical problems.

Our first story deals with a situation that could have led to some ethical issues, but in the end did not.

The story from Prairie Public’s Dave Thompson.

One of the most successful architecture firms in North Dakota is JLG Architects. “JLG” stands for the first initials of the partners of the firm. The “L” is Lonnie Laffen. He’s a Republican State Senator from Grand Forks, and has been since 2011.

JLG bid on a project at Valley City State University. In the brochure JLG sent, Laffen is listed as “Legislative Liason.”Laffen says that was a mistake.

“My marketing department handles those," said Laffen. "I didn’t see that one when it went out. The case they were trying to make in our brochure is that we understand how the process works. And they used the term ‘Legislative Liason,’ which is totally inappropriate.”

The then-President of Valley City State, Steve Shirley, noticed the reference – and disqualified the bid from JLG.

“I take complete responsibility ultimately as the CEO,” said Laffen. He says he educated his marketing department about it. And he says it won’t happen again.

Since JLG gets a good share of state projects, there could be the opportunity for more conflicts.              

“About, I would say, 99.9 percent of the time, the Legislature funds projects, and then entities go out and select firms to do the work after that<" said Leffen. "And so, almost all the time I’m competing for the work that’s already funded, and it doesn’t have anything to do with me as it’s being funded.”

Laffen says the only time there was a potential conflict was in a major renovation of the Wilkerson Hall dining room at UND.

“Wilkerson Hall actually did select architects before the funding was in place<" said Laffen. "And so that project came up for a vote, and it was already our project. So, I had to abstain. The Legislature, in turn, wouldn’t let me abstain, and so, in the interest of what’s good for UND, I voted for it.”

JLG won the bid to design the UND Medical School. But Laffen says when it was debated in the Legislature, the bids had not been let – so there was no conflict. He says JLG won the bid after the session ended.