Audit of Burgum air travel might spark policy changes

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A state audit this week 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 when cheaper commercial flights were available. The governor's office defends its use of state planes. Here's a closer look at the issue.


The state Auditor's Office during a routine audit of the governor's office early this year discovered that air travel expenses weren't documented, and State Auditor Josh Gallion decided to investigate.

"If we couldn't see it during an audit, then I'm certain the public couldn't see it either," he said, adding that "we clearly had a transparency issue."

The reason is that the state Transportation Department oversees the three state airplanes and also arranges for charters of private planes, so the governor's air travel costs are not part of the governor's office budget. The audit suggests changing that to encourage the governor's office to travel more economically.

The governor's office strives for that, spokesman Mike Nowatzki says. Transportation Department Deputy Director Mark Nelson says the agency's flight services budget has "never had any instances where we've run short."


A big finding was that the governor's office has used state airplanes several times for allegedly "inappropriate" personal commutes. Gov. Doug Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford live in Bismarck, but Burgum also has a residence in Fargo and Sanford in Watford City.

The governor's office disputes using state planes for commutes, saying the questioned flights were connected to legitimate business.

There's also a question of whether the state policy cited by the audit applies. It's titled "Travel in City of Employment," and prohibits reimbursement of "mileage for travel from an employee's residence."

Gallion says the policy "is more for driving, but it is the closest guidance we could find." Rep. Mary Johnson, R-Fargo, thinks the policy is "questionably applicable." But Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, says the audit presents at least the appearance of impropriety.

Scott McNeil, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, says he thinks the audit shows that "a different standard seems to apply" to the Republican governor.

"Unfortunately for everyone concerned with good governance in North Dakota, Gov. Burgum has continued to lack transparency and bend the rules to benefit his own convenience at taxpayer expense," McNeil said.


It makes four recommendations, including prohibiting the use of state airplanes for personal commutes.

Another is that the Transportation Department stop providing air service to non-state employees such as family members who don't have a state business purpose.

The governor's office calls these people "temporary state volunteers" who either support the governor or lieutenant governor in their official business or act as dignitaries or ambassadors.

Gallion says he's never heard of the term in his 10 years in state government. But Tag Anderson, risk management director for the state Office of Management and Budget, says state law does allow for it.

He says his agency uses the term unpaid volunteer state employee "almost on a daily basis" when determining who can be in a state vehicle, and that those people are covered under liability insurance for the state's planes.

The audit recommends that the Transportation Department ensure the state isn't exposed to additional risk for non-state employees being on planes, but Anderson says that possibility "is really remote at best."

The audit's final recommendation is that the Transportation Department require all state agencies to state the business purpose of air trips. Gallion says his agency couldn't establish the business purpose for all of the governor's flights through calendars provided by his office.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, says she agrees with the need for more clarity.

"The idea that the (governor's) calendar justifies the trip, I'm not quite buying that one," she said.


The audit concluded that state airplane use for out-of-state travel has increased under Burgum's administration, and that he used state planes for nine such flights when cheaper commercial flights were available.

Nowatzki says that doesn't take into account scheduling conflicts and the short notice typically given for invitations to the White House. He says the Trump administration works closely with the Burgum administration and it's paying dividends for the state, offering the example of swift federal drought aid last year.

The audit also said first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum and her predecessor have used a state airplane 15 times without the accompaniment of their husbands, despite the fact they are not official state employees.

Nowatzki says the first lady is listed by the Transportation Department as a priority user behind the governor and his staff, and that her traveling alone in a state vehicle doesn't violate state policy.


Sort of.

Burgum was criticized in February for attending the Super Bowl in Minneapolis as a guest of Xcel Energy, which serves nearly 100,000 customers in North Dakota. The governor said before the game that he planned to use the opportunity to talk with Xcel officials about their service and infrastructure in the state.

After the criticism, Burgum reimbursed the Minneapolis utility for $37,000 in costs related to the trip. He said he wanted to eliminate any perception of a conflict of interest.

The trip wasn't part of the audit.


It might spark changes in state government air travel policy during next year's Legislature. State Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, chairman of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, said that group is likely to develop "some sort of direction" for lawmakers.

Right now, use of state planes only for official government business "is kind of on an honesty system," said State Rep. Keith Kempenich. R-Bowman.