Auditor Gallion Needs to Be Careful Not to Prove His Critics Right

North Dakota Auditor Josh Gallion announce his re-election campaign for the 2020 political cycle.

First-term state Auditor Josh Gallion, who recently announced his intention to seek another term in office, has earned himself a lot of praise. His aggressive and incisive audits have been something of a revelation, showing a willingness to uncover real problems in state and local government dominated by members of Gallion’s own political party.

In these deeply polarized times, it’s a breath of fresh air.

But Gallion’s approach to the duties of his office has made him enemies. State lawmakers tried to gut his ability to initiate performance audits earlier this year. I say they tried because, in an opinion Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the policy change was likely unconstitutional, and Gallion has chosen to ignore the change in law until it’s challenged in court.

In political circles, there is a lot of whispering about Gallion’s supposed arrogance. He’s accused of being a sensationalist. Someone for whom headlines are more important than sounding auditing practice. The gossips say Gallion has political aspirations far beyond his current station, and that his audits are resume padding.

Those criticisms may start to find more traction than they did before after a debacle last week, which saw Gallion retracting a review of the City of Williston’s financial practices. In particular, the city’s handling of the Williston Basin International Airport project and the Sloulin Field redevelopment.

The Williston Herald has a detailed story about the embarrassing situation that’s worth your time to read if you haven’t already.

This excerpt, I believe, is particularly damning for Gallion and his office:

[Williston City Administrator David] Tuan said he was unaware that the report was coming out, as the city was still in the process of providing the information that the Auditor was seeking, specifically in regards to the Williston Basin International Airport project and the Sloulin Field redevelopment.

“Back and forth for about the last month (the city) has been responding to multiple requests for information,” Tuan told the Williston Herald. “From the get-go, they’ve had more focus and more interest on two topics — primarily the airport and the Sloulin Field redevelopment. Those were areas of focus for them, and I will say that I’m not surprised, just because they are both big projects in terms of finance, and in terms of scope they’re both very big.”

Tuan said they city [sic] had responded to some of the inquiries and were in the process of responding to others when the report came out Monday afternoon. He said he spoke with Galleon about the report on Tuesday and told him he believed the report was based on incomplete information.

If the City of Williston was really unaware that the audit was dropping, if they still believed they were in the process of providing information to audit officials, that speaks to some worrisome problems in the Auditor’s office. In fact, it makes it seem like Gallion’s critics who say he’s more about “gotchas” than thorough audits, have a point.

Gallion has taken a hard line in his approach to being our state’s Auditor, and good on him for it. There has been a lot of hot air about supposed corruption in state government. While most of it is an exaggeration (motivated all too often, I’m afraid, by partisan calculation), the best antidote to that sort of rancor is a vigorous Auditor.

But in doing that, Gallion has stirred up some opposition, and he can’t afford gaffes like the one which just occurred in Williston.

Do better, Mr. Gallion.

UPDATE: I spoke with Gallion this morning. He said his office has, in writing, a message from Williston’s city auditor stating that his office had been sent all the information they were going to get. Based on that, he went forward with releasing the audit.

He did acknowledge there was perhaps a need to have more than one point of contact with an entity being audited to ensure all information is in hand for future reports.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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