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WAHPETON — Local business leaders and student senators have written letters of support for the North Dakota State College of Science president ahead of meetings on a state audit that accused the school of acting inappropriately in conducting business related to a planned career workforce academy.

The State Board of Higher Education has received more than a half dozen letters and an NDSCS Student Senate resolution expressing support for college President John Richman, according to documents obtained through a public records request. One of the letters was from the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, and was published Tuesday on the newspaper’s website.

“It is disturbing to hear of the negative press Dr. Richman has received,” the Chamber wrote. “From our perspective, he shows nothing but humility and compassion to those around him. He is a dedicated and selfless leader who holds others above himself.”

The letters were written after a state audit found NDSCS Vice President of Workforce Affairs Tony Grindberg, who's also a Fargo city commissioner, was involved in hiring the Flint Group, which employs his wife, to promote the school’s career workforce academy planned for Fargo or West Fargo.

The relationship was not disclosed on paper, and the audit claimed NDSCS tried to hide the conflict of interest by not providing documents to the state auditor’s office. Other claims included "unauthorized and questionable spending of state and local funds" and "inappropriate methods used to obtain approval" for the academy, all of which the college contested.

The public records request did not reveal any letters to the SBHE that spoke out against Grindberg, Richman or the college.

The SBHE audit committee will review the audit and responses from NDSCS Wednesday before the documents go before the full board Thursday, May 30. It’s unclear if any action will be taken.

“The issues that are brought up in this audit were not serious enough to warrant any kind of serious action, and therefore, we wanted them to know we stand by Dr. Richman,” said Jim Roers, owner of the Roers construction and development company and one of several Chamber members who signed the letter to the editor.

SBHE member Kathleen Neset, who heads the audit committee, and North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott were unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Thomas Shorma, president and CEO of WCCO Belting in Wahpeton, said the audit was overblown. He wrote a letter to the SBHE, stating his support for Richman and the workforce academy.

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“Anybody in business knows that whenever there is an audit done, they always find something,” he said. “You ask for an audit in order to improve process, in order to make things better, not to flag that somebody’s doing something illegally or unethically, which was certainly not the case.”

Richman said he was unaware of the letters until asked about them.

“We were encouraged that these leaders understand and continue to reinforce the current strategic plan that we are operating in that’s shaping the future of this college,” he said, adding that the college is focused on how it can meet workforce needs for the region.

NDSCS has a “culture of continuous improvement” and looks forward to having discussions with the committee and board regarding the audit, Richman said.

“We appreciate the feedback that we get from these types of reports, and we take them seriously, and we try to implement steps and procedure that can help us to be better than what we currently are,” he said.

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