State representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would shield matters referred for investigation by North Dakota's state auditor.
The approval of House Bill 1127 came despite an 11-2 do-not-pass recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee. The full House passed the bill 62-31. It now goes to the Senate.
Rep. Pat Heinert, R-Bismarck, brought the bill as a means to prevent jury pools from potentially being tainted due to information being released prior to prosecution. He said a controversial 2019 audit of North Dakota's Commerce Department drew his attention to the issue.
State Auditor Josh Gallion had notified the attorney general of audit conclusions that the department mishandled state money and skirted public bid requirements in developing the state's new logo. The audit drew attention because Gallion publicized its findings.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem referred the probe to South Dakota criminal investigators to avoid any conflict of interest. No charges resulted from the criminal investigation, but some GOP lawmakers and former Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer criticized Gallion for his actions. Kommer retained an attorney amid the monthslong investigation and was denied state reimbursement for attorney fees.
Kommer, who resigned last fall to enter the private sector, in October urged lawmakers on an audit review committee to "work with the legislative body to prevent this from ever happening again."
Newspaper representatives opposed the bill, saying it would close records to the public about officials being investigated.
Rep. Gary Paur, R-Gilby, who carried the bill, urged the House to defeat the legislation.
"The Judiciary Committee felt the open records laws and the lack of a threat to jury pool tainting made the bill of little value," he said.
But Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, told the House about the Commerce audit fallout, saying the bill was needed "for the protection of our state employees for the future, so they are not wrongly accused of anything."
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