Port: In dramatic testimony, rural firefighters accuse Auditor Josh Gallion of exaggerating audit findings

"How many times do you think we have to be punched in the face before we get up and represent ourselves?" Jerry Waswick of the Gwinner Fire District asked lawmakers.

Jerry Waswick of the Gwinner Fire District holds a speaker up to a microphone so that lawmakers on the House Appropriation Committee's Government Operations Division can listen to a recording of state Auditor Josh Gallion speaking on a Bismarck-based talk radio show.
Screenshot via Legislative Video Feed

MINOT, N.D. — The relationship between state lawmakers and North Dakota Auditor Josh Gallion may have hit a new low yesterday during tense meetings of the House Appropriations Committee, at which multiple lawmakers accused Gallion of not telling the truth.

Also testifying at the hearing was the representative of a volunteer fire department who played audio of Gallion from a talk radio show, juxtaposing it with financial records to illustrate what he characterized as a calculated effort by Gallion to deceive the public and smear the firefighters.

North Dakota State Auditor Josh Gallion speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, in Bismarck.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

But first, for those of you just turning in, some back story.

Lawmakers have long taken issue with Gallion's sensationalist approach to the duties in his office. They're also not keen on the rising cost of the audits his office performs. In a couple of examples I've reported , the cost of audits conducted by Gallion's staff created significant financial hardships for a rural ambulance service and the aforementioned volunteer fire department, all while turning relatively minor issues.

There are other problems, too. The ambulance service has filed an ethics complaint against Gallion , alleging that his office leaked information to activists working to defeat a ballot proposal that would have increased their funding. Some local governments, including Griggs County and the city of Parshall, have refused to pay the auditor's bills .


For his part, Gallion sent a letter to multiple media outlets accusing state lawmakers, without evidence, of corruption and alleging that they've been working to undermine his office. He even went so far as to claim that lawmakers used the budgeting process to fire a specific member of his staff, though at least one lawmaker involved with those budgeting decisions has said on the record that it was Gallion who wanted the employee fired (the employee has refused comment).

This brings us to the March 20 meeting of the House Appropriations Committee.

During questioning, multiple lawmakers accused Gallion of being something less than truthful in his conduct. You can watch Gallion's entire testimony from the full committee's morning session here , but below is a clip beginning with Rep. Greg Stemen, a Republican from Fargo, asking Gallion about a news release his office sent out accusing state health officials of denying services to citizens.

Stemen, and other lawmakers, found that characterization to be inaccurate, and things went downhill from there.

At one point, Gallion denies having alerted the media about findings in an audit of the Gwinner Fire District, which prompts Rep. Mike Brandenburg, a Republican from Edgely, to push back.

"Josh, that's not true. That press release came out before the Gwinner Fire Department ... they seen it on Facebook, then seen it in the news," he said, adding that Gallion's contention that the fire district was notified first "is not correct."

Rep. Emily O'Brien, a Republican from Grand Forks, told Gallion that the news release Rep. Stemen questioned him about was "beyond misleading" and "confuses the process."

But the real fireworks started when Rep. Mike Nathe, a Bismarck Republican, referenced Gallion's accusations about corruption in the Legislature.


"I just want to give you the chance to explain the letter you sent calling everyone in this room corrupt," he said. "I would like to know what your thinking is doing that in the middle of the session when we have your budget. Do you really think that helps the process?"

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Gallion denied accusing every lawmaker of being corrupt. "If you actually read the letter, I said this is not a blanket statement," and claiming that he was merely responding to lawmakers accusing him of "money laundering."

"Nobody said you were guilty of a crime," Nathe shot back.

During the afternoon session of the committee's Government Operations Division, things got even more dramatic. Jerry Waswick, representing the Gwinner Fire District, played audio of Gallion speaking on a talk radio show. During that interview, Gallion accuses the firefighters of co-mingling tax dollars with revenues from fundraisers and spending $30,000 on alcohol over five years.

At one point in the interview, Gallion and the host compare government officials to cockroaches.

Waswick presented lawmakers with financial records indicating that tax revenues and fundraiser dollars were kept in separate bank accounts, and that only fundraiser dollars were used to purchase alcohol, an amount that totaled just a bit more than $8,000 over five years, well short of the $30,000 figure Gallion claimed.

Waswick said Gallion's statements were "intentionally phrased to be very sensational."

"How many times do you think we have to be punched in the face before we get up and represent ourselves?" Waswick asked lawmakers.


It's a good question. By the way, be sure to watch the testimony from Ann Hafner , representing the Killdeer Ambulance Service, who made similar, if somewhat less dramatic, accusations against Gallion.

Much of the friction between Gallion and state lawmakers over the years has centered on his tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize the findings of his audits. Being the auditor is a tough job, no doubt, one that often uncovers inconvenient facts that sometimes make people uncomfortable. Even angry.

But there are many examples, including that of the Gwinner Fire District, of Gallion going beyond what might even be fairly described as an exaggeration. He has clearly misstated facts in an attempt to smear his critics.

Can we honestly say that is conduct becoming of anyone in elected office? Let alone someone tasked with serving as an auditor?

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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