New law gives legislators power to block audits

BISMARCK (AP) — Audits of state agencies that often have turned up evidence of wrongdoing now must get the blessing of the Legislature before they may begin, a move the state auditor says will hurt his ability to perform independent reviews.
Auditor Joshua Gallion, an elected Republican, said Monday he may not seek a second term after GOP Gov. Doug Burgum signed the legislation last week.
Gallion called the measure “a significant policy change” late in the session without his input or review.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been doing the job taxpayers have elected me to do.”
A leading watchdog also criticized the move. Gallion has asked the attorney general’s office for an opinion on how the new legislation will affect his office.
Dina Butcher, a Republican and spokeswoman for North Dakotans for Public Integrity, said the audits are valuable in accessing the efficiency of government. She called the legislation “an erosion” of transparency “that comes with the arrogance of power.”
But the legislation drew strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. It requires the state auditor to get lawmakers’ permission to conduct “performance audits” designed to see if agencies are being managed correctly and efficiently.
Democratic Rep. Corey Mock, of Grand Forks, carried the bill in the House and was part of a panel that crafted the provision. He said the law will help lawmakers control the scope and costs of audits that can sometimes cost agencies $100,000 to $200,000.
Mock argued that the legislation will increase transparency by having an audit proposal vetted in public.
The state auditor’s office inspects the books of government agencies and North Dakota’s university system. It routinely finds problems with agencies that it reviews. In 2014, an audit of North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department found scores of discrepancies with the agency’s practices, including improper payments to employees and a number of guns missing from a volunteer hunter education program.
An audit of the state Land Department three years ago found ethical violations that included employees getting free meals and booze from contractors who manage state assets.
A state audit last year concluded that North Dakota’s governor, lieutenant governor, office staff and first lady used state airplanes for in-state trips with questionable purposes and for out-of-state trips where cheaper commercial flights were available. The governor’s office defends its use of state planes, saying it was state business.
“To say there is more transparency is quite a stretch,” said Bismarck GOP Rep. Rick Becker, one of only 20 lawmakers to vote against the bill. “The optics are horrible.”
Becker said the legislation likely will open the audits up to politics.
“It’s pretty clear the auditor’s job requires a level of independence,” Becker said. “Now, he has to ask permission, and that opens it up to abuse by the party whom he has to ask permission.”
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor did not sign the bill in retaliation for that audit. Burgum said in a statement the bill “represents a reasonable check on potentially burdensome costs to agencies for performance audits.”
Burgum pointed out that the bill got wide bipartisan support and that it increased the number of employees in the auditor’s office to 58.
Gallion said that’s only three more positions than the agency had 20 years ago.
Gallion was elected auditor in 2016 after Republican Robert Peterson did not run for a sixth term, marking an end of a more than four-decade father-son dynasty in the office. Peterson’s father, Robert W. Peterson, held the job for 24 years before his son was elected in 1996 as his successor.
Republicans have held the office since 1894.