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North Dakota lawmakers of the interim Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 Tuesday to recommend a bill draft to Legislative Management after deleting some amendments that drew concerns over transparency.

North Dakota State Auditor Josh Gallion has finished his review of Gov. Doug Burgum’s office’s use of state aircraft, complete with recommendations — some of which the governor’s office disputes.

The audit examined the governor’s office use of state-owned planes and executive security over a two-year period ending Feb. 28, 2018. His findings include four recommendations for the governor’s office and state Department of Transportation, including the discontinuation of both “commuting” with state aircraft and carrying “non-state employees without a business purpose.”

The state auditor also recommended the DOT ensure the state isn’t open to additional risk in transporting non-state employees on its aircraft, as well as require all state agencies to submit a requesting form for air transportation “to establish the business purpose of the trip,” both of which the governor’s mostly agreed with.

Responses from the governor's office to Gallion's recommendations were included in the audit's report. The governor's office disputed the use of aircraft for "commuting.”

“In all instances, use of the state aircraft was for furthering state business and/or a public purpose,” the governor’s office said. “As stated in NDDOT policy, the state aircrafts are a valuable tool to maximize the state’s resources and drastically reduce travel time and allow employees to be more productive while traveling, and this is particularly true of the governor and lieutenant governor.”

Burgum’s office also said non-state employees who traveled on state aircraft within the audit’s lens were “temporary state volunteers" who were "furthering a public purpose,” while immediate members of Burgum’s and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford’s families were acting "in the capacity of dignitaries or ambassadors" representing the state.

In a statement, governor’s spokesman Mike Nowatzki responded to Gallion’s published audit:

“The governor’s office has utilized state aircraft and resources within budget, within established guidelines and with the purpose of furthering state business while using taxpayer dollars in a prudent manner. As NDDOT policy says, the state aircraft are a valuable tool to maximize the state’s resources, drastically reducing travel time and allowing employees to be more productive while traveling. The roles of governor, lieutenant governor and first lady are not desk jobs. We operate efficiently and effectively, with a priority on reinventing government and engaging with constituents all across the state.”

Gallion’s report was published online around 4:35 p.m. Tuesday. He did not return a phone message left 10 minutes later. A call to his office’s main phone also went unanswered around 5 p.m.

Gallion identified $695,247 in air transportation costs for the governor’s and first lady's offices within the scope of his audit — including about $175,000 in airplane costs from September to November 2017.

Nowatzki sent the Tribune further remarks in response to Gallion's report: “Because air transportation services are funded with State Highway Fund dollars, moving air transportation services costs into the governor’s office budget would require a general fund appropriation while providing no additional cost savings or transparency, as costs are already accurately reflected by multiplying flight hours by the hourly rate.”

Burgum’s office also pointed to high engagement with President Donald Trump's administration as the reason for increased out-of-state travel since January 2017.

Gallion’s audit found no issues related to executive security provided by state Highway Patrol.

The state Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee is set to hear the audit as the first presentation of its meeting Wednesday morning at the state Capitol.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Crime and Courts Reporter