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Tribune editorial: State needs to reimburse Kommer costs

Tribune editorial: State needs to reimburse Kommer costs

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It was unfair of the state to reject former North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer’s claim for legal expenses.

Kommer hired an attorney after a criminal investigation was launched into an audit critical of her department. State Auditor Josh Gallion notified Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem of audit conclusions that the commerce department mishandled state money and skirted public bid requirements while developing the state’s new logo.

Stenehjem referred the case to South Dakota to avoid any conflict of interest. No criminal charges resulted from the investigation. Kommer and some legislators have been critical of Gallion for prompting the investigation.

The Tribune editorial board has no issue with Gallion informing Stenehjem of his audit findings. The Tribune has found Gallion’s approach to state audits refreshing and helpful to the public. He’s ruffled feathers along the way, but that’s OK because his office has found problems that need to be fixed.

His office has been transparent about its findings, often informing the public before going before legislative committees. There’s nothing improper about this since he serves the public; thus reporting to the public makes sense.

While the Tribune doesn’t agree with Kommer’s criticism of the audit, we feel she’s entitled to reimbursement. It’s not a lot of money -- $9,858 -- and she said she wants it back for symbolic reasons.

Kommer told the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee recently that: “I would like my money back, not because I care about the money, I don’t, but as a symbol that reason prevails over chaos and good prevails over evil.”

We will take Kommer at her word that she doesn’t care about the money, but the Tribune does. Kommer, like Gallion, serves the public, though her position is appointed and the auditor is elected.

It’s logical she would retain counsel once it was announced her office was under investigation. Since the state didn’t provide attorneys, Kommer and others hired attorneys. Since no charges are forthcoming, it’s only fair that they be reimbursed for expenses. Gov. Doug Burgum’s office said the governor plans to support legislation with retroactive application. It’s unclear why Kommer’s claim was rejected.

That’s not the way to support state employees. Those working for the state expect to be supported unless they violate the law or the terms of their employment. The Legislature needs to review the guidelines for reimbursement to make sure state employees are treated fairly.

The Tribune believes Gallion handled the audit properly and the process worked. Where the system failed was when it came to paying back Kommer.

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