BISMARCK - After an audit alleged problems with his use of state airplanes, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s office plans to inform the state Department of Transportation about the “business purpose” of those trips, his spokesman said Friday, June 29.
The change won’t mean the DOT could veto trips, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said, but the move could add more transparency to the process.
The reason for the flights could already be discerned from the governor’s publicly available calendar, he noted.
“That’s the one piece of information that DOT doesn’t have on their manifests,” he said. “We’re still figuring out the best way to do that.”
DOT spokeswoman Jamie Olson said the department is still reviewing the report “and determining if any policies need to be implemented.”
DOT policy requires the state-owned planes to be used for official business only. The governor’s office has “no limitations on destinations” and is not charged for using the planes, according to the audit report. The office is “pre-approved” for flights under DOT policy.
The audit, launched by Republican State Auditor Josh Gallion in March, also recommended that Burgum's office stop using state planes "for commuting to or from personal residences to official meetings or offices." Burgum's office disputed that the planes have been used for commuting, and the governor defended the flights.
"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," Burgum said in a statement.
The audit covered two years, starting in the final nine-plus months of former Gov. Jack Dalrymple's administration and concluding at the end of February. It found that it cost $695,247 to fly the governor's office and the first lady in that time.
Democratic state Rep. Marvin Nelson, who challenged the former software executive in the 2016 election and is a member of the legislative audit committee that reviewed the report this week, called for more policies to govern the planes' use.
"I don't know that I would say that anything is necessarily so improper," he said. "But basically what you've got is ... a businessman who's used to, as an upper businessman, he can do what he wants."
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he didn't immediately see anything in the audit that required the Legislature's attention.
"I think the governor will take care of it himself," he said.
Burgum's office argued flying provides more time to engage with constituents on issues like last year's drought and flood protection in Fargo-Moorhead. Nowatzki, in prepared testimony, said the aircraft "are a practical, effective and necessary tool to meet the modern demands of positions that require statewide engagement."
The report only briefly discussed the governor's security provided by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, concluding that there were "no issues" to report. Gallion's office provided a statement he signed in April declaring information he received from the agency related to the governor's audit would be confidential.
"The reason is to protect security system plans, critical infrastructure information vital to maintaining public safety, security or health," the document reads.
In a news release issued this week, Gallion's office said the "audit reports stand on their own and include all pertinent information available."