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After disputes with state auditor, North Dakota lawmakers offer bills

After disputes with state auditor, North Dakota lawmakers offer bills

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Some North Dakota lawmakers have proposed bills stemming from controversies involving the state auditor, including a proposal to shield information of matters referred for investigation.

State Auditor Josh Gallion supports the efforts.

The 2019 Legislature approved a restriction requiring the auditor to seek legislative approval before launching performance audits, which are deep-diving probes into financial issues. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem later issued an opinion that the law is likely unconstitutional. Gallion has stood by the opinion.

Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, who proposed the restriction as an effort to improve communication, has brought House Bill 1273 to repeal the law.

"It's just to resolve the issues from (2019)," Kempenich said.

Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, has proposed a similar bill, House Bill 1255, "correcting what was changed last session," he said.

Gallion said the attorney general opinion "is still for me basically the law of the land." He would support a repeal of the law.

The second-term Republican auditor, who won reelection with 68% of the vote last year, drew criticism for his handling of a 2019 audit of North Dakota's Department of Commerce.

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. 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, urged lawmakers of an audit review committee to "work with the legislative body to prevent this from ever happening again."

Rep. Pat Heinert, R-Bismarck, has introduced House Bill 1127, which requires the auditor and others not to divulge "any information relating to a matter forwarded to the attorney general or a state's attorney for further investigation until the attorney general or state's attorney has made a determination as to whether there is probable cause to believe a violation of law has occurred."

Heinert said he introduced the bill because "it comes back to the jury trial system."

"I looked at it that if we utilize the information and provide it to the public like it's been provided in the past, prior to a criminal complaint, and it gets advertised, it could affect the selection of a jury in the county where the charge could come," the former Burleigh County sheriff said. 

Heinert said the Commerce audit is what drew his attention to the issue, given the audit's high-profile nature. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

The state auditor sees the bill as "really intended to try to protect the reputation of those who may need to have an additional review done."

He said he stands by the Commerce audit, "however, I also feel that the way the audit report and how it was done after the report was issued was very unfortunate, with the staff and the employees at the Commerce Department."

Gallion think the bill "enhances" the auditor's authority "by continuing to allow some of these reviews to be done." 

"The goal is to hopefully protect the reputation of those involved so nobody is found innocent or guilty in the court of public opinion," he said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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