The auditor’s office had been a quiet place – until Josh Gallion moved in. Gallion won the office in 2016, ending the Peterson years, presided over by Robert W., the father, and Robert R., his son. Together they served 44 years, created no controversy and won 11 consecutive elections.
Before that, Curtis Olson won six elections, serving 14 years, and creating no controversy – except the time he sent out a fundraising letter on state stationery.
No wonder North Dakotans, office-holders, legislators, voters, journalists and citizens began to overlook the office.
Gallion saw potential, however. He actively sought the office in 2016, and once he’d won, he rapidly raised its profile and prompted pushback to the extent that it is now the most talked about office in state government.
This is a complicated story and the plot has many twists and turns.
To begin with, Gallion ramped up his office’s approach to performance audits, and he didn’t aim at any obscure agency. Instead, he criticized Gov. Doug Burgum’s use of the state-owned airplane. There were other audits, too, including one that criticized a former state senator for pushing state contracts toward his wife’s advertising firm.
In the closing days of the last session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring the auditor to get approval for performance audits from their own Audit and Fiscal Review Committee. The bill emerged from a late-session conference committee, not an unusual development.
The oddity was that a Democrat – one of only 15 in the 94-member House of Representatives – presented the committee’s report on the floor. Corey Mock, who represents a Grand Forks district, had been ousted as Democratic leader, but every Democrat and most Republicans voted for the bill. Opposition came from the chamber’s right-leaning Bastiat Caucus, the state’s version of the congressional Freedom Caucus.
The bill passed and the governor signed it.
A referral was announced almost immediately. Petitions were approved by the secretary of state and are being circulated. Meanwhile, the attorney general advised legislative leaders that the bill is probably unconstitutional under the doctrine of “separation of powers.”
Voters saved the auditor’s office once before. In 1990, lawmakers proposed an amendment that would have moved the office to the legislative branch after 1992 – coincidentally the date that Auditor Peterson the Elder said he would leave office. Voters turned it down and elected Peterson the Younger.
In the latest case legislative leaders displayed confusion about how to proceed. The Senate Majority Leader, who had defended the move against the auditor, said the Legislature should drop the idea in the face of the attorney general’s opinion. The House leader said the law should stand, since the opinion is only advisory.
The case becomes more curious still, because the state Supreme Court had earlier ruled against the governor’s interference in legislative budgeting, mentioning the separation of powers clause while slapping his fingers.
So, the governor either has a short memory or a grudge to settle.
His use of the state airplane has gone down. A recent news release from his office said he hasn’t used the plane as much since he’s settled into the job and no longer needs familiarization trips around the state.
The auditor himself suggested that he’d continue using his oversight powers since the attorney general had said the law forbidding them would likely be unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mock, the Democrat who presented the idea on the House floor, was tabbed for an interim committee chairmanship – the only Democrat appointed.
None of this establishes motives, of course, but the whole affair sure looks like a tale of revenge, reward and ambition.
Of course, the final chapter is yet to be written.
The petition drive is underway. Whether or not the required number of signatures – 13,452 – will be filed by midnight on July 25 can’t be known in advance. If they are, the legislation will be suspended.
Although the auditor’s office had been off in the wings of North Dakota’s political theater for decades, it has taken center stage now and again. Berta Baker, who served as auditor from 1934 to 1954, was a frequent petitioner at the state Supreme Court. She was tight with the state’s money, frequently refusing to sign warrants during the dark days of the Depression. She had been state treasurer; she was the first woman elected to any statewide office other than superintendent of public instruction.
Auditors were regularly ousted in the turbulent teens and ’20s. In 1920, Carl Kozitsky betrayed the left-leaning Nonpartisan League and was defeated, and so was his conservative replacement.
The only really successful auditor politically so far was Frank Briggs, who was elected to the office in 1894 and used it as a stepping stone to the governorship, which he won in 1896. Briggs was a young man in a hurry. Only 38 when he was elected, he died in office just short of his 40th birthday, succumbing to tuberculosis.
Finally, for the trivia file: There have been fewer individuals elected auditor than to any other existing statewide office, and all but one ran as a Republican. The exception was elected in 1892, on a “Fusion” ticket that included Democrats, Populists and Independents.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.