Mistakes should not be ignored

Marvin Nelson

Fargo

The audits of the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands revealed deep problems in the department. The response by the Board of University and Trust Lands, which runs the department, reveals deeper problems in the executive branch of our state government. The board consists of five of the top officials in our state, the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the superintendent of public instruction, and the treasurer. You can get the complete audits on the state auditor’s website.

With over 60 recommendations by the state auditor, it was not surprising that staff disagreed with some of the audit results at the legislative committee meeting. Official responses were given in the reports. Any other disputes by the board were not known because they did not appear; none so much as darkened the doorway that day.

When the Board next met, they told the staff to comply with the recommendations, no disputes. It was called “irrelevant” if the employees agreed or not with the recommendations. That is right up to when the recommendations affect the actions of the board itself, the actual giving of Oil and Gas Impact Grants.

Then the board said we aren’t even admitting we made a mistake. How do we go so swiftly from disagreement is irrelevant to not even admitting a mistake? Staff must comply, board will ignore. This is especially curious because the department had agreed with the audit conclusion that ineligible entities got grants.

Realize that it’s an audit, a sample of the total, revealing that ineligible entities got grants. This is serious. I don’t know what else to call it but misappropriation of public funds. The response to that was not, we have to fix it. Not it is irrelevant if we agree or not. Not we have to go through and find out how widespread this serious mistake is, no, then the claim is no mistakes were made, but procedures will be changed.

Even this response is not satisfactory for the future. If no mistakes were made, then who is eligible for grants shouldn’t be changed in the future. If, on the other hand, ineligible entities got grant money, then something needs to be done. Many eligible entities have not received the money they requested; they shouldn’t be told we gave it to someone else who wasn’t eligible, too bad. Realize too that at the same time, eligible entities that have been awarded grants have been told there is no money, they have to wait, and maybe there will be money in the future.

What should be done? First, it needs to be known just which and how many grants are affected. The board should hire someone from outside to do a complete examination of the grants to determine which were given to ineligible entities. The ones identified as such by the state auditor should be accepted as ineligible. Then, the ineligible entities need to return the money. I would note that this is not through any fault on the part of recipients, and that they certainly have needs and provide important services, just they are not eligible. So leniency needs to be the order of the day in getting back the money by setting up payments.

Then, it is also only fair to take the problem to the Legislature. Maybe the Legislature will decide to appropriate money for the currently ineligible entities. Maybe the Legislature will decide to change criteria; much like the Legislature will be asked what to do about the trust monies given to the wrong state agencies for years.

What should not happen is ignoring the audit finding that ineligible entities received grants. A we didn’t make any mistakes is not an acceptable response.