Last June, State Auditor Josh Gallion released a “Performance Audit Report” of the Governor’s Office for travel and use of state resources. It came in the aftermath of Governor Doug Burgum being scrutinized for attending last year’s Super Bowl on the dime of Xcel Energy. Burgum later reimbursed the company nearly $40,000 for his tickets in order to “eliminate even the perception of any conflict”.
The purpose of Gallion’s audit was twofold— air travel and executive security. In it, Gallion made multiple findings and concluded with four recommendations— at least in relation to air travel. More on that later.
Included in Gallion’s findings were “17 flights in which all or a portion of the flight were considered commuting”. To be fair, the time period of the audit covered March 1, 2016 to February 28, 2018. Meaning, “The flights involved both the current and prior administrations.” In his findings, Gallion was critical. Citing the Office of Management & Budget’s travel policy as “best practice”, he expressed the view that:
“…any costs incurred by the state to commute the Governor or Lieutenant Governor were inappropriate.”
Just one example of “commuting” that Gallion had a problem with was in relation to Lt. Governor Brent Sandford— whose hometown is Watford City. Gallion made it clear that given the verbiage used in the State Constitution, it’s his view that while serving as Governor and Lt. Governor, their residence is considered to be Bismarck:
“The state airplane was used to pick up the Lt. Governor in Watford City while on personal time and brought him to Bismarck/Mandan for a speaking commitment. Afterwards, the state airplane was used to transport the Lt. Governor back to Watford City.
“The state airplane returned to Watford City the following day to pick up the Lt. Governor to transport him to an engagement in Fargo.
“The State Auditor believes the Lt. Governor’s travel to/from Watford City to Bismarck is normal commuting travel. In the first example, if the Lt. Governor drove his personal vehicle he would not have been entitled reimbursement under OMB Policy 507. In the second example, the State Auditor believes the Lt. Governor should have been responsible to get to Bismarck before using the state airplane.”
As you can see in the audit, the governor’s office took issue with some of Gallion’s conclusions. In fact, at one point, they even responded by suggesting that one of his recommendations “defies common sense”.
As I eluded to earlier, the section of the audit on executive security was particularly interesting. In it, Gallion writes:
“Due to the confidentiality of executive security, the Office of the State Auditor is unable to provide additional details.”
And as a result, his findings are simple:
“That State Auditor found no issues related to the executive security provided by the North Dakota State Highway Patrol to report.”
In essence, the report was a mixed bag. On some things, our State Auditor had valid points. On others, the governor’s office countered with some of their own. Yet, for many, it raised questions about transparency. After all, air travel costs totaled nearly $700,000 and Gallion couldn’t even provide details when it came to issues surrounding executive security.
One state lawmaker who thinks that the people of North Dakota should have access to records relating to the air travel and security costs of the Governor’s Office is former Speaker of the House, Rep. Bill Devlin (R – District 23). Devlin is sponsoring House Bill 1363 which proposes that records be kept on a quarterly basis identifying the costs of “air transportation services” and “security and transportation”. The records would be kept for a period of three years.
It won’t come as any surprise for you to know that Devlin is a former newspaper publisher. They’re kind of sticklers about open records— and rightfully so. While people may have disagreements on the specifics found in Josh Gallion’s audit of the Governor’s Office, one thing we should be able to agree upon is that transparency is a good thing. So, kudos to an old newspaper guy for trying to bring a little bit more of it to Bismarck.
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