In the waning days of the session some legislative action can be swift and somewhat sneaky. Such was the case last week with the budget bill for the state auditor. An amendment was added requiring Auditor Josh Gallion to receive approval from the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee before conducting performance audits.
Performance audits are different from required regular examinations by the auditor’s office.
The Tribune Editorial Board believes legislators went too far with this amendment. It smacks of a power grab. And worst, it will be interpreted as an effort by legislators to protect friends from an embarrassing audit and to avoid public accountability. For those who questioned the need for an ethics commission this is a good example of when a watchdog is needed.
Gallion has taken a more aggressive approach than his predecessors. One audit showed an "inappropriate" use of state planes by the governor's office and another audit revealed ethical and bookkeeping concerns with the state Department of Trust Lands. Last month, an audit questioned the role of an administrator at the North Dakota State College of Science in hiring a consulting firm.
The audit said Tony Grindberg, the college’s vice president of workforce affairs, was involved in hiring the Flint Group, where his wife, Karen Grindberg, is chief financial officer. The firm was hired to promote a career workforce academy the college is working to establish.
Tony Grindberg also is a Fargo city commissioner and former state senator. This raises the question of whether legislators were irritated over a former colleague being criticized in the audit. Auditors also allege the college tried to hide Grindberg’s role in the hiring of the firm.
Gallion was elected in a statewide vote to run the auditor’s office. Voters should be upset over the legislative effort to usurp Gallion’s authority.
During floor debate some legislators tried to sugarcoat their action. Some argued the amendment would ensure communication between the Legislature and the auditor. Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the new language "really doesn't change much."
However, Gallion pointed out to the Forum News Service that the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee doesn’t meet regularly, So getting committee approval for an audit could delay the process. Gallion also suggested giving legislators the power to block performance audits could allow political considerations into the process.
The Tribune also disagrees with a comment by Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley. He said, "The job of the auditor is to keep people out of trouble, not to go out there looking for trouble." Conducting audits isn’t looking for trouble, it’s a process to guarantee that policy and law is being followed.
The public deserves to know if their money is being spent properly. We encourage Gov. Doug Burgum to veto this section of the bill. The Legislature controls the purse strings of state offices, they don’t need this extra power.