Lawmaker disputes auditor’s report on ND Attorney General’s office cost overrun

Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 6:42 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - In the flurry of news surrounding Election Day, here’s one issue you may have missed. The North Dakota lawmaker who was implicated in wrongdoing in the $1.8 million cost overrun at the Attorney General’s office has published a conflicting report.

After Wayne Stenehjem passed away in January, it was discovered his office had paid more for a new building lease than they had budgeted for. Representative Jason Dockter of Bismarck owns the building, and after the State Auditor presented a report with hundreds of thousands of questionable costs in September, Dockter published his own report.

1720 Burlington Avenue has been a headache for much of Drew Wrigley’s tenure as Attorney General.

“We, as you know, inherited this, so I didn’t have any reason to suspect that, ‘Oh, I bet the building that we’re in down there that nobody wants to be in and isn’t a very good location and all these other things. I bet that building was overpaid for or there were things that...’ I, you know, didn’t have any reasons to think that,” said Attorney General Drew Wrigley.

In September, the state auditor’s report found a number of issues, including that the new building has 2,600 fewer square feet than their previous office space, despite paying more on a month-to-month basis. But Dockter isn’t concerned.

“Their previous building was an older building, had many hallways and unusable space. So, the 2,600 square feet less, they could actually still get the same people in down at the new facility as they could at the old, and still pay 2,600 fewer square feet in rent,” said Dockter.

As for the cost of the lease? Dockter says it’s fair.

“Unless this lease and this building costs the taxpayers too much money, a high rent rate versus other rents in town, then I would have concerns. But this is well within the market rate and they had enough in their budget to pay for it in the 2021 biennium,” said Dockter.

That the money has already been paid isn’t a point of contention.

“They took the money out of that existing budget, instead of it going back, it would’ve gone back to the state of North Dakota because it would’ve been just ending fund. Instead, it got paid out at the end of that biennium,” said Wrigley.

As for what is disputed? The total cost of the overrun. The AG’s office says $1.8 million, Dockter’s report says $1.2 million. Either way, Wrigley says: “Every bit we figure out shouldn’t have been paid, we’re seeking back. Every nickel of that, every nickel.”

Dockter says he’s disappointed with the auditor’s report.

“We want someone to be a watchdog in the auditor’s office, but we also want to be accurate and complete audits so we can have trust in the auditor’s office,” said Dockter.

State Auditor Joshua Gallion says he stands by his office’s findings.

Of course, the whole issue is complicated by the fact that 20 years of Wayne Stenehjem’s emails were deleted just days after his death. Representative Dockter says the cost overrun issue turned conspiratorial after it was discovered the emails were missing. He says he included every email his people ever shared with the AG’s office in his 800-page report, and that he’s hopeful they can be recovered.