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After logging nearly 50,000 miles in first year, state auditors examining flight history of Burgum's office

Gov. Doug Burgum responds during a Q&A at the 701 Coworking Space in downtown Grand Forks Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, during his visit to the city. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — An audit of Gov. Doug Burgum’s travel expenses includes an examination of the use of state Department of Transportation-owned airplanes.

State Auditor Josh Gallion is conducting a performance audit focused on “travel related expenditures and use of state resources” by Burgum’s office. DOT spokeswoman Jamie Olson confirmed auditors are looking at flight information but Gallion, a Republican, has declined to discuss details of the inquiry, making its full scope unclear.

Gallion said he hopes to complete the examination in two to three months.

Burgum’s spokesman Mike Nowatzki defended the governor’s use of state airplanes Friday, April 13. He said “each trip is thoughtfully planned with a priority on maximizing the time and effectiveness of the governor and lieutenant governor and the travel expenses to support being present with North Dakota citizens.”

“The governor’s job is not a desk job in Bismarck. It demands and requires higher levels of engagement,” Nowatzki added.

Burgum’s office logged roughly 49,700 miles on three planes owned by the DOT in the year after he took office Dec. 15, 2016, according to flight summaries provided by the department. That exceeded mileage during the most well-traveled year of his predecessor, Republican Jack Dalrymple, by more than 9,000 miles, although the data appeared to be missing some flights when compared with more detailed manifests.

The 270 flight “legs” during Burgum’s first year was roughly in line with Dalrymple’s figures, according to documents the DOT provided to Forum News Service.

Nowatzki said Burgum’s higher mileage is due in part to longer flights to Washington, D.C. He said President Donald Trump’s administration has been more engaged with North Dakota state leaders than the previous administration.

“This high level of engagement with the White House is yielding results” including action on drought relief and environmental regulation, Nowatzki said in an email responding to questions about the use of the state planes.

State business

The financial impact of Burgum’s travel wasn’t clear. OIson said they don’t have a line-item budget for the governor’s use of the planes. The “air services” budget, which includes plane maintenance, fuel and salaries, had almost two-thirds of its $2.1 million remaining at the end of February, marking the first eight months of the two-year budget cycle, she said.

Forum News Service first submitted a records request regarding the governor’s use of state airplanes Feb. 26, almost a month before Gallion’s letter to Burgum informing him of the audit and a few weeks after Burgum’s controversial trip to the Super Bowl.

The flight summaries don’t include passengers’ names, but separately reviewed manifests shed light on the nature of the trips.

In September, a DOT-owned plane picked up Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford in his hometown of Watford City, along with his wife and son, to fly to Grand Forks for the University of North Dakota’s Potato Bowl football game before bringing them back later in the day. Nowatzki said Sanford and his family were invited by the university to attend the game with President Mark Kennedy and conduct the ceremonial coin toss beforehand.

A 2007 DOT memo outlining the use of state aircraft warned they “are to be used for state business only” but doesn’t define “state business.” The one-page memo, provided by Olson when asked about policies governing the planes’ use, said passengers don’t need to be state employees but must be traveling on state business.

Nowatzki said the Potato Bowl trip constituted state business because Sanford was acting in his “official capacity.” He said Sanford “has not submitted a single vehicle mileage expense report since taking office, despite his extensive travels around the state in his personal vehicle for state business.”

While Nowatzki said Burgum has “oftentimes” paid for his own travel to National Governors Association events, he flew roundtrip to Rhode Island on a DOT plane for the organization’s summer meeting in July, a roughly 2,400-mile journey. Nowatzki said taking a commercial flight wouldn’t have allowed him to hold a town hall meeting in Beulah on the drought the morning of his departure.

The audit comes after Burgum and his wife attended February’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis as guests of Xcel Energy. After some criticism, he reimbursed the utility service provider almost $40,000 for the game tickets and for other related events.

The DOT flight logs show Burgum didn’t fly to Minneapolis using a state plane that weekend, and Nowatzki previously said he paid his own travel expenses. Gallion declined to say whether auditors are examining that excursion, and he cited a state law shielding his “working papers” from public view.

“We ask for information, we want to make sure it’s verified,” he said. “We do our due diligence before we release anything.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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