The top two award recipients at a banquet on the North Dakota State University campus Thursday night both previously left their state jobs in disgrace after admitting to taking money to which they were not entitled.
Gene Griffin claimed thousands in bogus expense reimbursements while Gary Ness pled guilty in 2008 to stealing over $1,700 from a service station, yet both men were honored by NDSU’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute.
The institution’s leadership sought to distance the selections from the university.
“The awards are not NDSU awards,” institute director Denver Tolliver told me in response to an inquiry. “Therefore, the selection of a winner does not imply an endorsement of that person by NDSU.”
One member of the selection committee that selected Griffin and Ness for recognition defended the choices.
“Nowhere in the criteria for these awards is the requirement that a prospective award recipient be disqualified for a mistake made at some point in their life,” Daniel Zink, a member of the UGPTI’s advisory council, told me. “These awards are given to recognize the positive contributions made by professionals throughout their lifetime. I am grateful for this fact, since a deep dive into the lives of all of the recipients above, and all of the rest of us, would certainly reveal a litany of mistakes and regrets.”
But “integrity” is listed as one of UGPTI’s “core values” on its website, and detecting the mistakes of one of the award recipients would hardly have required a “deep dive” from the awards committee.
Griffin, who received the John M. Agrey Award for “significant contributions to the state of North Dakota through involvement with transportation,” worked for the UGTPI from 1975 until 2011, serving as institute director near the end of the that term. In October 2011, he agreed to step down from his position after an audit revealed he had claimed over $6,000 in bogus drink and meal reimbursements.
Griffin had claimed expenses for which he didn’t actually pay and also double dipped on his expense reports by submitting requests for reimbursements to both NDSU and its foundation.
“A North Dakota State University administrator who was fired for pocketing more than $6,000 in extra expense payments won’t be charged with a crime, in part because the university is still letting him work there,” the Associated Press reported at the time.
An investigation report from the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation also revealed that foundation funds were used to purchase liquor, wine, and beer for UGPTI events, skirting NDSU’s prohibition on purchasing alcohol with state funds.
“There was a whole lot of alcohol bought with those funds,” the BCI report quotes Griffin as saying.
Griffin, who agreed to repay the UGPTI for the inappropriate expense claims, is now a contractor with the North Dakota Trade Office. According to director Dean Gorder, Griffin is contracted to assist that organization with research, and earns $4,500 per month.
Ness received the Chairman’s Award for “contributions to transportation research, education, and outreach at NDSU, and/or contributions to the viability of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute.”
According to the Associated Press, Ness avoided jail time by pleading guilty to the service station theft and agreeing to step down as director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, a position he’d held for more than 20 years.
Ness also avoided jail when he was arrested and charged with felony theft in a series of events Burleigh County prosecutor Richard Riha called “disconcerting.” South Central District Judge Robert Wefald, a friend of Ness, ordered him released from jail without making any record of a bond hearing.
“Normally, your run-of-the-mill defendant would have spent the weekend in jail,” Riha told the Grand Forks Herald. “We have a certain set of procedures that we follow, and it wasn’t followed in this case.”