North Dakota lawmakers seemed largely satisfied after asking questions and hearing answers related to state Auditor Josh Gallion’s performance review of the governor's office use of state aircraft in a two-year span. However, some concerns about transparency remain.
Gallion published his audit report late Tuesday and presented it Wednesday morning before the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee. Legislators probed a few aspects of his findings and recommendations, such as budgeting for air travel and certain flights by Gov. Doug Burgum, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford and their staff.
Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, who chairs the committee, said the governor’s office has been largely in line with how state aircraft should be used, "but once in a while, there’s a couple of outliers there that kind of make people look bad."
Gallion highlighted a series of charter flights the Burgums took from Bismarck to Jamestown, where the governor's daughter hopped on, then to Minot and on to Fargo, costing $7,900 in flight costs.
Governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said a funeral came up in Jamestown, and the only way the governor and first lady could make it to Minot, where Burgum had been invited to introduce a state fair act, was by plane.
Gallion also noted that Sanford and Nowatzki flew to Washington, D.C., for meetings in June 2017, and only Nowatzki returned on the state plane, costing $15,147 for the flights. Sanford returned on a commercial flight, for which he did not seek reimbursement. Burgum made the trip commercially from Fargo, as an internal practice to never fly with Sanford.
Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, said use of state aircraft is an "honesty system" for traveling a state that's basically "a small community with long Main Streets."
Klein told the Tribune the Legislature may seek to clarify use of state aircraft next session, but said he’s “absolutely” satisfied after hearing from Gallion and Nowatzki.
Nowatzki said the governor’s office will take Gallion’s recommendations under advisement and will see how to best accomplish reporting flights' business purpose for DOT.
The governor’s office disputed two of Gallion's four recommendations: the discontinuation of “commuting” and carrying “non-state employees without a business purpose.”
In one response included in Gallion's report, the governor’s office said “non-state employees” flying on state aircraft were “temporary state volunteers."
“That is a term that I am not familiar with, and I’ve been with state government for 10 years,” Gallion said.
Tag Anderson, director of the Office of Management and Budget’s Risk Management Division, said the term is used frequently “when evaluating whether someone could be in a state fleet vehicle or … drive a state fleet vehicle.”
Nowatzki disputed that Burgum and Sanford “commuted” with state aircraft on 17 flights that Gallion cited.
“In all instances, there were meetings on other sides of those flights, extenuating circumstances that necessitated use of the state plane,” he told legislators.
Gallion pointed to state aircraft flying Sanford from Watford City separately in two days to engagements in Bismarck-Mandan and Fargo, respectively, and returning to Watford City, where he has a home.
'A transparency issue'
Nowatzki said the governor’s office has used state aircraft within budget and guidelines. He also said governor’s calendars and labeled flight records held by DOT provide enough transparency for business purposes of flights, though Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, disputed part of his reasoning.
“The idea that the calendar justifies the trip, I’m not quite buying that one because I’m not going to go and ask the governor’s calendar if I’m a taxpayer who’s interested in knowing what the situation is,” she said.
Gallion said “a transparency issue” is what triggered his performance review after hearing comments in Burgum’s State of the State address about Sanford’s travels. Gallion said he asked his staff, who was completing a routine audit of Burgum's office, about the governor's office airfare, and "they shrugged their shoulders, told me they didn't know."
“At that point right there, I knew if we couldn’t see it during an audit, then I’m certain the public couldn’t see it, either,” he said.
Mark Nelson, a DOT deputy director, said budgeting for state air services is done in a $2.1 million biennial line item for DOT, pooled for every state agency to draw from.
“We’ve never had any instances where we run short,” he said. "The budget at this point is still currently good."
Gallion said the governor's office is exempt from filling out requests for state aircraft as all state agencies must do.
“These are not decisions we make lightly when we decide to use the plane," Nowatzki said.
'These are not desk jobs'
In the scope of Gallion's audit encompassing March 2016 to February 2018, including the last months of the Dalrymple administration and Burgum's first year, state airplane costs for the governor's office and first lady totaled $695,247.
Nowatzki also noted that first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum has used state aircraft "on a limited basis" and less than her predecessor, Betsy Dalrymple within the time frame of Gallion's audit period.
Gallion said he considers Bismarck as Burgum's and Sanford's "normal working and living residence," though they also have homes in Fargo and Watford City, respectively.
“Again, the aircraft are a practical, effective, necessary tool to meet the modern demands of positions that require statewide engagement,” Nowatzki said. “The governor, lieutenant governor and first lady understand these are not desk jobs.”
Gallion said it's not his office's duty to resolve questions from the audit: "We’re trying to raise questions so that these can be answered."