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AG may sue Game and Fish employee: Civil suit stems from audit alleging improper payments

BISMARCK — The North Dakota attorney general’s office informed Game and Fish Department Director Terry Steinwand on Wednesday that one of his employees may face a civil suit to recover state funds improperly paid to department employees and at least one nonprofit organization.

The letter to Steinwand from Assistant Attorney General Matthew Sagsveen referred to a critical performance audit released in June in which state auditors found the department didn’t follow state laws and policies related to spending and contracting, failed to properly inventory guns used in its hunter education program — 18 were still missing as of last week — and mismanaged a program that pays private landowners for hunting access.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is reviewing the audit and “may initiate a civil suit against the public officer or employee for the recovery of funds improperly paid,” Sagsveen wrote in the letter.

Stenehjem said last week that he planned to meet with the Burleigh County state’s attorney to determine what, if any, civil and/or criminal action was warranted.

Sagsveen asked Steinwand in the letter whether Game and Fish is trying to recover any of the money.

“To the extent you or your agency does not seek the recovery of improper payments of public funds, this office will proceed to recover those funds regardless of whether payee is a current or former employee, unless the attorney general determines recovery is not warranted,” he wrote.

In a phone interview Wednesday from a conference in Texas, Steinwand said the department’s first priority after the audit “has been to make sure stuff like this doesn’t happen again,” adding that staff have undergone training. But he said the improper payments will be addressed after reviewing records with Stenehjem’s office.

“If they were inappropriate, yes, we’ll go after them,” he said.

Auditors reviewed 20 payments made to Game and Fish employees and found that 12 of them had noncompliance errors that amounted to $1,535 in payments over what was allowed, according to the audit report. For example, three employees were paid meal allowances when the meals claimed were included as part of the event’s registration fee, the audit report stated.

Sagsveen wrote in the letter that it’s his understanding that 16 of the 20 per diem payments were identified as noncompliant, but it’s unclear why his number differs from the report’s figure. Sagsveen declined to comment, attorney general’s spokeswoman Liz Brocker said.

Sagsveen also noted that there were a total of 4,804 payments during the audit period from July 1, 2010, to April 30, 2013, but only 20 were reviewed by auditors.

“Please let me know what steps you are taking to review the remaining per diem vouchers to determine whether the payments comply with the law,” he wrote.

The letter doesn’t identify the nonprofit organization that received an improper payment. But during a meeting last week, state lawmakers on the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee questioned Audit Manager Jason Wahl and Steinwand at length about the legality of Game and Fish continuing to contract with a nonprofit organization, the North Dakota Landowner-Sportsman Council, after its registration with the secretary of state’s office was involuntarily dissolved in 2003.

Wahl said the person responsible for filing the paperwork with the office was a Game and Fish employee. Under the agreement, Game and Fish was required to provide an employee to handle the council’s treasurer and secretary duties, which wouldn’t have been proper even if the group was a registered nonprofit, Wahl said.

Steinwand said Wednesday that the department’s relationship with the council goes back 25 to 30 years, “and we were just unaware that they had let their registration with the secretary of state lapse.”

He told the committee last week that the department reimburses the council for “very specific, itemized things,” including payments of up to $250 a year that the council provides to local wildlife groups to hold landowner appreciation banquets.

Steinwand told lawmakers the department won’t provide payments until after the council re-registers and they redo a contract.

Mike Nowatzki

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