Summer Trips For North Dakota Politicians: Legitimate Official Business, Or Expenses-Paid Vacations?

It’s summer time, and for most American families that means vacation time. The weather is warm, the kids are out of school, and it’s time for some travel. Even for our political leaders, it seems, who have taken a number of trips to exotic locations with the tab picked up by the taxpayer and/or special interest groups.

Here’s a run-down of who went where, and how much it cost:

Governor Jack Dalrymple – Norway – Cost: $18,300 state/private funds

Governor Jack Dalrymple took a “trade mission” trip to Norway this month, with staffer Andrea Travnicek and First Lady Betsy Dalrymple (who attended “at her own expense” according to Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent).

“NDTO will cover the costs for Gov. Dalrymple to lead the state’s trade delegation to Norway,” Zent told me about the expenses of the trip. “The Governor’s Office will cover the costs of support staff, Andrea Travnicek. Support staff costs are budgeted to total about $4,400.”

Those funds are pulled from the governor’s office operating budget.

The North Dakota Trade Office pinned their share of the cost of the trip at $13,900 with $4,400 being pulled from the NDTO’s state budget and another $9,500 pulled from “private-sector revenue generated by NDTO and federal grant funds” according to NDTO spokeswoman Brittany Posey.

“The Trade Office is funded through a combination of state funding, private membership fees, participation fees paid by companies attending the missions and federal grant funds,” Posey told me in am email. “NDTO policy states that costs for official delegations leaders are to be paid through NDTO funding. Additionally, NDTO covers administration and overseas events costs.”

Mark Johnson from the NDTO was also on the trip.

“Norwegian heritage has always been an important part of North Dakota, and our state is committed to enhancing this relationship through mutually beneficial trade opportunities,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a NDTO press release. “This trip is part of our ongoing effort to bring North Dakota products to more and more buyers in high-demand markets around the world.”

Lt. Govenor Drew Wrigley, Ag Commissioner Doug Goerhing – Kazakhstan – Cost: $17,142.46 state/private funds

Lt. Governor Drew Wrigley, Ag Commissioner Doug Goerhing, NDTO Executive Director Dean Gorder and staffers Kayla Effertz (governor’s office) and Larry White (NDTO) traveled to Kazakhstan for a trade mission.

The total cost of the trip paid by the NDTO was $13,042.46, and another $4,100 from the executive branch budget to pay for Kayla Effertz.

“North Dakota is forging strong business ties in Kazakhstan, particularly involving the export of North Dakota’s high-quality agricultural products,” said Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, chairman of the North Dakota Trade Office (NDTO) Board of Directors, in a NDTO press release. “This forum affords us a great opportunity to build on our success in the Kazakhstan marketplace.”

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem – Turkey – Cost: ???

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem traveled to Turkey on May 31st through June 7th. “Wayne was a delegate from the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) – he is the current NAAG Liaison for the Council of State Governments (CSG),” AG’s office spokeswoman Liz Brocker told me in an email. “The trip was coordinated by/through NAAG and sponsored by the Turkish government. No AGO agency funds were used.”

I contacted the NAAG for specifics about the cost of the trip. Spokeswoman Marjorie Tharp didn’t give me a cost for AG Stenehjem’s trip, but did tell me in an email that “The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Turkish Government) and the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) paid for attorneys general expenses (airfare from DC, lodging and most meals).”

The itinerary for the trip, provided by Tharp, shows a lot of sightseeing, dinners and cocktails and not a lot of business.

Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring – Turkey – Cost: $2,691.28 in state funds, ??? federal funds

“Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring is a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agribusiness Trade Mission to Turkey, June 10-14, in Istanbul and Ankara,” a press release from North Dakota’s Ag Department reads.

“The mission agenda includes meetings between the governments of Turkey and the U.S., presentations by public and private sector experts; one-on-one business meetings and local site visits,” according to the press release. “U.S. Acting Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse invited Goehring to participate in the mission.”

The trip was paid for with federal dollars, according to Ag Department spokesman Tom Bodine, with Commissioner Goehring’s office picking up the airline tab with state general fund dollars.

The list of delegates provided by Commissioner Goehring’s office included a number of both state and federal officials.

Ag Comssioner Doug Goehring – China – Cost: $2,832.10 in state funds, $46,345 in federal

“Fourteen North Dakota companies will travel March 16-23 to Beijing and Guangzhou, China, to showcase the state’s high-quality agricultural commodities and food products to some of the China’s largest food manufacturers and processors,” reads the press release about Commissioner Doug Goehring’s trip to China back in March. “The event includes a conference and exhibition designed to further introduce North Dakota’s high-quality food ingredients to the Chinese food manufacturing market.”

Seven Legislators – Turkey – Cost: ???

Rep. Corey Mock, Rep. Ben Hanson, Rep. Larry Klemin, Rep. Lois Delmore, Sen. Phil Murphy, Sen. Ray Holmberg, and Sen. David O’Connell (along with his wife) went on an expenses-paid, four-city tour of Turkey coordinated by the Turkish American Federation of the Midwest, which is based in Illinois.

“We weren’t involved at all with this trip, we have no records relative to the trip, and our office is not paying any of the costs that may be related to this trip,” Jim Smith, Director of the Legislative Council, told me in an email.

“The trip in Turkey included cultural exchanges with host families, tours of cities and historical monuments, meetings with government leaders, including the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Parliament, tours of schools and meetings with non-governmental organizations operating in Turkey,” Rep. Mock told me of the trip in an email. “All program expenses were coordinated through the host organization and paid by program sponsors. Individuals paid for processing fees and some travel expenses, including visas needed to enter Turkey. While I cannot speak for others, no tax dollars were used in any way on my behalf. All personal expenses were paid out of pocket and I did not collect per diem or reimbursement for any costs at any point during my trip.”

Mock assumes that the same was true of the other legislators, something confirmed by the response from Legislative Council.

Conclusion

These sort of trips usually aren’t a big secret. The officials who go on them send out press releases about them, as do the state agencies and/or special interest groups that pay for the trips.

But the question for taxpayers is whether or not this is all really official business, or just exotic vacations for our political leaders interspersed with just enough “work” to make them seem official?

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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