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North Dakota Senate tosses bill brought to reimburse investigated officials; proposal could resurface

North Dakota Senate tosses bill brought to reimburse investigated officials; proposal could resurface

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North Dakota's Senate on Thursday defeated a bill meant to reimburse several officials who retained attorneys amid criminal investigations into critical audit findings.

Senate Bill 2322, brought by Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, fell 42-5. The bill sought to pay "state employee claims for wrongful criminal investigation or prosecution" related to their work in the last two years and going forward. Reimbursement would apply if a criminal probe did not result in a conviction.

The bill in part sought to reimburse former Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer and former Commerce Senior Manager Holly Holt, as well as three North Dakota State College of Science leaders, including President John Richman, costing taxpayers $48,136.

The five officials submitted claims for reimbursement after criminal probes launched in the wake of critical audit findings that the state auditor forwarded for investigation. No criminal charges resulted. State Risk Management Division officials denied the claims, determining they weren't viable.

Kommer, who resigned last fall to enter the private sector, and some state lawmakers have criticized State Auditor Josh Gallion for how he handled the audit findings. Gallion has said he had an obligation to advance the audit findings for investigation.

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, said the Senate Judiciary Committee supported the bill's intent but found its language difficult to work with. She noted the reimbursement issue is likely to come up in House bills. The amended bill did not include retroactive reimbursement to 2019.

House Majority Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, who has said he feels the former commerce commissioner was "wronged" and "wasn't treated correctly," told the Tribune the proposed reimbursements are "an important thing." He expects the issue to resurface in House discussions.

Several bills have come forward in the wake of fallout between the state auditor and lawmakers since 2019, including legislation to change state auditing standards and to shield audit matters referred for investigation. Those bills either await House votes or have passed to the Senate.

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

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