BISMARCK - North Dakota's state auditor called on Gov. Doug Burgum's office to stop using state airplanes for "commuting to or from personal residences" and highlighted the availability of cheaper commercial flights for out-of-state trips in a report released Tuesday, June 26.
Burgum, meanwhile, defended his office's travel as a "prudent" use of taxpayer money.
The probe of the governor's office, launched by State Auditor Josh Gallion in March, largely focuses on the use of state Department of Transportation airplanes and doesn't examine Burgum's February trip to the Super Bowl, after which he reimbursed Xcel Energy almost $40,000 for game tickets and other related events. The report covered two years, starting in the final nine-plus months of former Gov. Jack Dalrymple's administration and concluding at the end of February, and it includes four formal recommendations.
North Dakota lawmakers will review the report during a committee meeting at the state Capitol Wednesday morning. Gallion, who like Burgum is a Republican first elected in 2016, said he would comment publicly on the report during that meeting.
Auditors identified 17 flights in which they considered all or part of the trip "commuting," which included both the current and prior administrations, the report said. It noted that the state constitution calls for the governor to live in Bismarck, while state law "does not explicitly allow publicly provided transportation to individuals for commuting to or from their personal residence to official meetings or offices."
The audit report said "any costs incurred by the state to commute the governor or lieutenant governor were inappropriate." It highlighted trips taken by Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford to and from his hometown of Watford City.
The governor's office disagreed with "the assumption that air transportation services have been used for commuting" and said the "use of the state aircraft was for furthering state business and/or a public purpose" in all cases.
"As stated in NDDOT policy, the state aircrafts are a valuable tool to maximize the state's resources and drastically reduce travel time and allow employees to be more productive while traveling, and this is particularly true of the governor and lieutenant governor," Burgum's office said in a response included in the report. "While they have offices in the Capitol, they do not have a normal, single and static workstation, as they serve as governor and lieutenant governor for all of North Dakota."
Burgum echoed that sentiment in a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon.
"The governor's office has utilized state aircraft and resources within budget, within established guidelines and with the purpose of furthering state business while using taxpayer dollars in a prudent manner," he said.
The report said it cost $695,247 to fly the governor's office and the first lady during the two-year audit period. But the report noted that the DOT is waiving user charges for those flights, as allowed by law, and the costs are within the department's air services budget.
"As a result, the Office of the Governor's travel budget lacks transparency because it does not accurately reflect the true cost of the air transportation services," the report said. It later suggested, without a formal recommendation, that flight costs be included in the governor's budget.
"As a result, the Legislature and public would be provided with the cost of this usage and the Office of the Governor would be more inclined to evaluate each situation and consider using the most economical means of transportation," the report said.
Burgum's office, in a response not included in the report but provided by his spokesman Mike Nowatzki, said moving the costs would provide no additional savings or transparency.
The report said the use of state airplanes for out-of-state travel has increased under Burgum's administration, although commercial flights were available at a lower price. The nine out-of-state flights taken during the Burgum and Dalrymple administrations cost $108,382, the report said.
Burgum's office argued President Donald Trump's administration has been engaged with North Dakota leaders, prompting long flights to Washington, D.C. Regarding commercial flight availability, it blamed scheduling conflicts and the short notices given for White House invitations.
The auditors also recommended that the DOT stop providing flights to non-state employees "without a business purpose" and identified 14 flights in which they were "unable to identify the official business purpose." Burgum's office, however, said non-state employees noted by the auditors were serving as "temporary state volunteers," such as immediate family members acting as dignitaries representing the state.
"There is no incremental cost for family members who travel with the governor and lieutenant governor to support their roles, and they have only occupied seats on the aircraft that would have otherwise been vacant," the governor's office responded.
The two other recommendations called on the DOT to ensure the state isn't exposed to additional insurance risk for non-state employees traveling on state-owned planes - Burgum's office agreed but said it's not exposing the state to more risk - and to require all agencies to submit a form establishing a trip's "business purpose." On that point, the governor's office said the specific form recommended by Gallion's office, which all other agencies are required to complete, isn't the "proper" reporting method.
Most of the 78-page report is taken up by appendices with scanned copies of flight manifests and invoices. The audit was also intended to examine whether security provided by the North Dakota Highway Patrol was a "prudent use of state resources," but it includes just a one-sentence finding that there were "no issues" to report.
Gallion's office was unable to provide more details "due to the confidentiality of executive security," the report states.