AP NEWS

Auditor reined in by lawmakers showed zealous approach

May 8, 2019
North Dakota State Auditor Josh Gallion poses for a photo at the state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D., Wednesday, May 8, 2019. In just a couple of years in office, Gallion has done nearly double the number of performance audits his predecessor did in the dozen years prior. Gallion's zeal to uncover waste and misuse of resources hasn't endeared him at the Capitol, where lawmakers this year passed legislation to pare back his powers by making him get their blessing first. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — In just two years in office, State Auditor Joshua Gallion has carried out performance audits at about twice the rate of his predecessor. It’s a zeal that hasn’t endeared Gallion to the Legislature, which this year passed legislation designed to “reel him in,” according to one lawmaker.

“A lot of legislators started having some issues with the way things were going and wanted to reel him in,” said Republican Rep. Keith Kempenich, who said he pushed the legislation tucked into a bill approved in the final days of the session.

The legislation, which drew strong support from both Republicans and Democrats, requires the auditor to get lawmakers’ permission to conduct performance audits designed to see if agencies are being managed correctly and efficiently.

Backers initially said the legislation had nothing to do with the new aggressiveness Gallion brought to the job. Kempenich now says that was a big part of why the legislation was crafted. But he said it wasn’t intended to punish Gallion, but rather to make sure legislators were informed on what he was doing.

“Lawmakers were reading ‘gotcha stuff’ in the paper before we knew about it,” said Kempenich, a rancher from Bowman in the state’s southwest corner. “This isn’t how these things are supposed to go ... It isn’t supposed to embarrass people.”

Gallion, 40, an elected Republican who was endorsed by his party, said he is doing “what taxpayers expect.”

“Nobody likes accountability but everybody expects it,” he said.

Gallion was elected auditor in 2016 after Republican Robert Peterson did not run for a sixth term, marking an end of a long father-son dynasty. Peterson’s father, Robert W. Peterson, held the job for 24 years before his son was elected in 1996 as his successor.

Gallion has completed five performance audits since 2017 and ordered a sixth — a rate slightly more than double that of the years 2004 to 2016, when 13 audits were completed, according to figures on the auditor’s website. The auditor’s office wasn’t able to immediately provide data going farther back.

Gallion isn’t required by law to notify lawmakers of audits, but he said “in most cases” he notifies the head of a legislative committee that monitors his work of a planned audit. He does not seek their permission.

One audit that Kempenich said irritated lawmakers, especially some in Fargo, came last month and concluded that the State College of Science in Wahpeton “engaged in inappropriate activities” surrounding its proposed Career Workforce Academy.

Among the findings was that former Republican senator and current Fargo City Commissioner Tony Grindberg, who works for the school, was involved in paying an advertising and consulting firm where his wife works $39,500 to come up with a strategic plan for the facility. The audit said the contract was a conflict of interest and Grindberg failed to disclose it.

Gallion said the agency undertakes performance audits after credible tips from the public or someone within a state agency, or if something is found via other audits.

“I’m not sitting in my office wondering who we are going after today,” he said. “That’s not what we do.”

Gallion is more aggressive about publicizing the findings of audits, issuing press releases and using social media to disclose findings, which hadn’t been done before.

Gordy Smith, who worked as an auditor for 37 years and retired before Gallion took over, said the Legislature’s move leaves the auditor’s office “hamstrung.” But he didn’t spare Gallion of criticism, saying he “strongly disagreed” with the way Gallion publicizes audits. He also said more audits are being done because they aren’t as thorough.

Gallion acknowledged that some audits by his office may be “more surgical” than those of the past.

“We get in and take a look at what we need and get out,” he said.

Gov. Doug Burgum felt the sting of a Gallion audit last year that concluded that Burgum and his staff had used state airplanes for questionable purposes when cheaper commercial flights were available. The governor’s office defended its use of the planes, and after he signed the legislation restricting the auditor, his office said it had nothing to do with past audits.

Burgum said in a statement the bill “represents a reasonable check on potentially burdensome costs to agencies for performance audits.”

Gallion said his office found at least $77 million in “financial errors” in the past year, which he said is seven times his agency’s funding.

“Auditors don’t cost taxpayers money; we save taxpayers money,” he said.