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Audit report rips North Dakota Game and Fish

BISMARCK – Gov. Jack Dalrymple is “very concerned” about a recent audit that found the North Dakota Game and Fish Department improperly reimbursed employees for meals and lodging, awarded contracts without bids and lost track of more than 100 guns used in its volunteer hunter education program, a spokesman said Friday.

The State Auditor’s Office found the department failed to comply with state laws and policies related to spending, contracting and human resources issues, and also ineffectively ran a program that pays private landowners to allow public access for hunting.

“The governor is very concerned,” Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent said. “The governor is requiring corrective action. It’s a priority for him.”

Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand said the audit report “was a shock to us.”

“We expect much, much more out of ourselves, and we’re meeting almost daily on how do we accomplish these aggressively and as fast as we can,” he said.

The department agreed with 43 of the 44 formal recommendations made by the auditor’s office in the performance audit dated April 9. Steinwand said he told his staff he wants to be in compliance with at least 90 percent of the recommendations by the end of July.

Zent said officials from the state’s human resources, risk management, procurement and budget offices will meet with Game and Fish employees next week to review the audit’s findings “and help them in the process of correcting the deficiencies.”

Steinwand, who met with the governor’s chief of staff Friday, said he said hasn’t heard any calls for his resignation.

“I work for the governor, and we’re going to aggressively attack this stuff and get them corrected, and if the governor wants my resignation, I guess he’ll ask for it,” he said.

None of the department’s 158 full-time employees have been disciplined as a result of the audit, he said.

“But we’re not done with our (employee) evaluations yet, either,” he said.

Among the audit’s findings:

  •  The Game and Fish Department is required to take an annual inventory of the guns it provides to volunteer hunter education instructors, but auditors “identified no documentation these guns were ever inventoried,” the report states.

Steinwand said the department has a list of the guns and their serial numbers and is providing it to game wardens, who’ve been directed to retrieve the guns by next Friday so the department can begin the inventory process.

“I have to trust our hunter ed people, yeah, they do know where they are,” he said. “It’s just a matter of verifying.”

Auditors also found that about 330 of the 810 active volunteer instructors were never subjected to background checks that have been required since July 1998, and 660 had no background check or follow-up review within the last five years.

Auditors recommended the department periodically check the state’s sex offender registry for all volunteer instructors. Steinwand said that will happen on an annual basis from now on, and all new volunteer instructors will continue to go through a full criminal background check.

  •  Auditors found the department didn’t follow rules requiring state agencies to use a formal bidding process or some alternate process for goods and services estimated at more than $25,000.

For example, after entering into a contract in 1999 for toll-free telephone services to provide hunting and fishing license information, the department continued doing business with the vendor after the contract expired in 2004 without asking for bids or proposal from similar businesses. The department paid the vendor more than $170,000 during the audit time period from July 1, 2010, to April 30, 2013.

  •  Auditors determined that sponsorship payments made to three private organizations, including an annual $4,000 sponsorship of an environmental stewardship award for livestock producers, were within the department’s legal authority.

However, auditors had concerns about the payments being coded as miscellaneous grants “when no grant program exists” and Game and Fish had no assurance the funds were used appropriately, the report states. They raised the same concern about money for various local sportsmen clubs’ banquets.

“Organizations receiving funds could have used the moneys for unintended or inappropriate purposes without (the department’s) knowledge,” the audit stated.

Steinwand said the department has since created a grant program that includes criteria applicants must meet.

  •  Auditors reviewed 20 payments to employees – out of a total of 4,804 during the audit period – and found that 12 had noncompliance errors that amounted to $1,535 in payments over what was allowed.

Three employees were paid meal allowances when the meals claimed were included as part of the event’s registration fee, the report stated.

The audit also found that the department’s use of federal funds to pay the costs of its annual recognition banquet for volunteer instructors, including one night’s lodging for volunteers and their guest, weren’t allowable costs. In 2013, the banquet cost over $15,000 and lodging exceeded $10,000.

Steinwand, who became the department’s director in 2006 and was its fisheries chief for 16 years before that, characterized most of the deficiencies in the audit as “administrative lapses.” He said one cause may be that the department hasn’t asked for many new administrative staff positions in recent years.

The Game and Fish Department received a $67.5 million legislative appropriation for the 2013-2015 biennium. The department is supported almost entirely through fees for hunting and fishing licenses and other services, and it receives no state general fund dollars.

PLOTS issues raised

Auditors identified several issues with the department’s handling of the Private Land Open to Sportsmen program.

A goal set by then-Gov. John Hoeven in 2003 of enrolling 1 million acres in the PLOTS program “is not a reasonable goal for the program,” auditors wrote, noting the goal hasn’t been changed despite the number of PLOTS acres being below 1 million since 2010.

The lack of an appropriate PLOTS goal “does not provide a reliable means to measure the program’s effectiveness,” the audit stated.

In its response, the department said it will expand its ongoing efforts to gather input from hunters, landowners and other stakeholders to help establish and maintain a reasonable PLOTS goal.

Auditors also found inconsistencies in how PLOTS acres were enrolled, with incorrect forms being used to evaluate tracts of land and inappropriately calculated payment rates to landowners.

Changes were made to PLOTS tracts that weren’t allowed by the agreements or communicated to Game and Fish by the landowners, auditors wrote. In one example, a landowner sold 10 acres of a PLOTS tract to an oil company that developed the land into a compression station.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.