BISMARCK– Since Governor Doug Burgum won the governorship in 2016, he has been cited twice for financial issues. The first time came in February when he accepted approximately $37,000 worth of Super Bowl tickets and expenses from Xcel Energy. The second incident came this week after a performance audit on the governor’s use of state resources.
Four months after Burgum paid back $37,000 for the Super Bowl tickets, State Auditor Joshua C. Gallion identified17 flights taken during Burgum’s and former Governor Jack Dalrymple’s administrations, where either entire flights or portions of flights aboard state-owned Beechcraft Super King airplanes were defined as commuting. Such commutes by the Office of the Governor are not covered by the Department of Transportation or by law.
“Mileage from a normal workstation to a conference or meeting is reimbursable, if an employee actually reports to work prior to attendance at the meeting,” Gallion stated in his report. “However, mileage for travel from an employee’s residence directly to the conference/meeting site is not reimbursable, since it is considered normal commuting travel.
“As a result, any costs incurred by the state to commute the Governor or Lieutenant Governor were inappropriate.”
The audit also revealed that income tax implications for personal use of employer-provided vehicles may need to be reported by transportation employee’s in order to avoid noncash fringe benefit allegations.
Current usage aboard one of three state-owned planes is $1,410 per flight hour, and $103 per hour for pilot costs, the report stated. The Department of Transportation is also authorized to charter private planes for the Office of the Governor and the First Lady in instances where state-owned airplanes or state pilots are unavailable.
Auditors also discovered 14 flights that transported non-state employees, including spouses, children, and other office staff and were unable to identify the official business purpose. The Department of Transportation Executive Policy Manual states that all use of aircraft and pilots are for official business only.
The Department of Transportation’s Fleet Services Manual further states in its regulations that spouses, children, animals, or hitchhikers are not allowed in state vehicles.
The Governor’s office disagreed with the findings, saying that the non-state employees were “temporary state volunteers” supporting the office for a public purpose.
“In all instances, use of the state aircraft was for furthering state business and/or a public purpose,” the Governor’s office responded. “The state aircrafts are a valuable tool to maximize the state’s resources and drastically reduce travel time to allow employees to be more productive while traveling, and this is particularly true of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor.”
The Governor’s office went on to say that although the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor have offices and must reside in Bismarck, their work stations are not “normal,” as they serve all of North Dakota.
“We operate economically and within budget, with a primary focus on outcomes and impact.”
Liability was the third issue the State Auditor’s report uncovered, saying that the Department of Transportation covers its employees except in instances of negligence, and the Risk Management Fund covers state employees. In essence, the State Auditor was worried that the state was exposed to additional risk for transporting non-state employees traveling on state-owned planes.
The Governor’s office replied by saying it was not exposing the state to additional risk as the aircraft in question were insured through a standard aviation policy that provides third-party liability coverage of up to $10 million.
“The state airplane was used for flights for which the Office of the State Auditor was unable to identify the business purpose,” the report stated. “The calendars provided by the Office of the Governor did not show the business purpose of meetings held or even if the meetings were held. We were unable to locate the calendars for some members of the prior administration.”
Excluding the Office of the Governor, all state agencies are required to obtain permission from the Department of Transportation in order to travel aboard state-owned airplanes.
“The State Auditor recommends the Department of Transportation require all agencies to submit a Request for Air Transportation form to establish the business purpose of the trip,” the State Auditor’s report stated.
Auditors also attempted to investigate executive security provided by the North Dakota State Highway Patrol, but due to confidentiality, the State Auditor’s office was unable to provide further details.
While the state has been tightening its fiscal belt, cutting back monies for schools, mental health institutions, and first responders, the report solicited criticism from many.
“Unfortunately for everyone concerned with good governance in North Dakota, Governor Burgum has continued to lack transparency and bend the rules to benefit his own convenience at taxpayer expense,” Scott McNeil, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, said.
“Instead of jumping on 94 for his trips between Fargo and Bismarck like every other commuter, he’d rather call up personal Uber for the Air and leave taxpayers with the bill. For an elected official who is calling on North Dakota’s K-12 teachers, higher education instructors and administrators, mental health professionals, and first responders to do more with less and proposing massive cuts to the state’s public services, a different standard seems to apply.”
Kylie Oversen, the Democratic candidate for the next tax commissioner, said the misuse of public funds and the Governor’s responses were troubling, and that she would stand up to the “good ol’ boys club” that Burgum promised to dismantle.
“When our state is facing yet another round of budget cuts that will gut our higher education institutions and threaten access to mental health services, our Governor doesn’t seem too concerned about spending nearly a million dollars in air travel since 2016,” Oversen said.
“The Governor stated that he was flying with ‘temporary state volunteers,’ but it is unlikely that these ‘volunteers’ were helping with the backlog at our DOT licensing offices or helping to clear snow after local highway department shops were closed. The Governor’s flippant response to this misuse of public funds reeks of arrogance and an unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions. While all of our agencies are being directed to tighten their belts, the Governor should know that he is expected to do the same.”
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