State audit questions North Dakota governor’s air travel
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has used state airplanes at least seven times for “inappropriate” commutes to or from his Fargo residence, according to a state audit that concludes governor’s office air travel lacks transparency.
The governor’s office and at least one lawmaker on Wednesday questioned whether state policy cited by the audit applies to the flights, and governor spokesman Mike Nowatzki defended Burgum’s use of state planes as being within policy, a prudent use of taxpayer dollars, and a means of increasing efficiency and productivity.
“These are not desk jobs,” he told members of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee.
The report that State Auditor Josh Gallion presented to the committee covers a two-year period ending in February, and includes some air travel by the preceding governor. It concludes that the governor, lieutenant governor, office staff and first lady have used state airplanes for in-state trips with questionable purposes, including 17 flights for commutes.
Both Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford have homes in Bismarck. Burgum also has a residence in Fargo, about 200 miles east of Bismarck, and Sanford has a home in Watford City, about the same distance to the west of the capital.
The audit cites state policy that prohibits reimbursement of “mileage for travel from an employee’s residence,” and says the 17 flights were “inappropriate.”
Gallion acknowledged to the committee that the policy “is more for driving, but it is the closest guidance we could find.” Rep. Mary Johnson said she found the policy to be “questionably applicable.”
The governor’s office disputed using state planes for commutes, saying the flights all were connected to legitimate business.
“In all instances there were meetings on other sides of those flights, extenuating circumstances that necessitated use of the state plane,” Nowatzki told lawmakers. “So we would not consider those normal commuting.”
But Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, said the audit presents at least the appearance of impropriety.
“You don’t think it looks like it’s commuting when somebody is picked up in the morning in Fargo, brought to Bismarck for work and then brought back to Fargo?” he asked Nowatzki. “Because if I was John Q. Public, that’s exactly what I would think.”
The audit recommends the governor’s office stop using state airplanes for commutes. It also recommends other changes including that the state Transportation Department, which oversees the three state planes, require state agencies to state the business purpose of trips.
Gallion said his agency couldn’t establish the business purpose for all of the governor’s office flights. They cost nearly $700,000, including about $108,000 for nine out-of-state flights for which the audit said cheaper commercial flights were available.
Nowatzki said the governor’s office always considers “the most economical and efficient means of travel.”
“The notion that commercial flights were available at a lower cost doesn’t take into account scheduling conflicts and the very short notice typically given for invitations to the White House,” he said, adding that the Trump administration “has been highly engaged with our administration.”
That has benefited the state in several ways, such as swift federal aid for drought relief last summer, according to Nowatzki. He said the governor’s office use of state airplanes also has resulted in time savings that equate to about 440 hours of additional work time for Burgum and Sanford — nearly a dozen additional 40-hour work weeks.
Committee Chairman Jerry Klein said it appears the state airplanes are largely being used as intended but that the committee likely will develop “some sort of direction” on government air travel policy for next year’s Legislature.
“Once in a while there’s a couple of outliers there that kind of make people look bad, and if we improve on that, that’s the direction we need to be going,” he said.
Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake