Legislature’s decision to gut auditor’s powers looks worse and worse

The State Board of Higher Education is getting a babysitter for North Dakota State School of Science President John Richman.

“The state’s university system may keep a closer eye on North Dakota State College of Science management after a state audit found problems with how the school handled business regarding its planned career academy,” my colleague April Baumgarten reported this week.

According to his current contract, Richman makes $201,896 per year with an $11,000 per year vehicle allowance, but will now need direct oversight from the SBHE until, as board member Kathy Neset put it, “confidence is rebuilt and trust is restored.”

Richman’s leadership has been a problem for years now. This action from the board, though modest, is overdue.

Refreshingly, it comes despite the Fargo-area Chamber of Commerce and a cadre of powerful business interests from the region expressing their opposition to any sort of accountability for Richman.

But for the purposes of this column, let’s focus on why the board acted.

A report from state Auditor Josh Gallion’s office was the genesis for the move.

That report detailed a number of serious problems, not the least of which was Richman allowing NDSCS Vice President Tony Grindberg to negotiate a contract with his wife’s public relations firm.

Richman claims Grindberg’s connection to the firm was known to him, but it wasn’t officially disclosed. Also, when the auditors began their inquiry into the matter, Richman’s administration attempted to hide public records related to the extent of Grindberg’s involvement.

Richman denies this, but he’s not getting a babysitter from his bosses because people trust him.

Gallion’s report proved valuable. It revealed real problems at NDSCS, and has spurred remedial action by public officials.

Yet, thanks to bipartisan actions by the Legislature earlier this year, the ability of Gallion’s office to conduct those sort of audits in the future has been limited. He now must ask the permission of a legislative committee to conduct them.

Many, including this observer, feel part of the reason for the Legislature limiting the auditor’s powers was the NDSCS audit.

Powerful politicos and influential business interests support Richman.

Grindberg, a former state senator currently elected to the Fargo City Commission, swings a not inconsiderable amount of clout himself.

Gallion’s report stung both, and the blowback from lawmakers was a curtailing of his ability to produce such reports.

That was wrong, and it’s not getting the attention it should. Probably because the legislation was bipartisan. Only a small faction of Republicans voted against it.

Most Republicans, and every single Democrat in the Legislature, voted for it.

Given how many of our political commentators are hacks who serve either the Republican or Democratic team, it’s not an issue they’re likely to take up. There’s no clearly partisan position to take.

That’s a shame. As we see from the SBHE’s actions, Gallion’s office has been doing good work. He didn’t deserve to be punished for doing it.

There is a recall effort afoot for this legislation. Let’s hope it’s successful so lawmakers can enjoy a taste of the accountability Richman is getting.

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