BISMARCK - A day after publicly acknowledging his recent treatment for alcohol problems, state Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger said Thursday he’s taking a temporary unpaid leave of absence to seek additional professional help.
Rauschenberger’s announcement followed reports Wednesday that he lent his SUV to an alleged drunken driver who rolled the vehicle Tuesday afternoon in Mandan.
News also surfaced Thursday that on the morning of that accident, Rauschenberger was involved in a three-vehicle crash in which he rear-ended a vehicle in north Bismarck.
Rauschenberger, who was appointed in November to finish the term of former Tax Commissioner Cory Fong and is now campaigning for a full four-year term against Democrat Jason Astrup of Fargo, said his leave of absence was effective Thursday.
“As I said before, I believe my prognosis is good and I expect to be back at work and on the campaign trail in just a few weeks,” the 31-year-old said in a statement distributed by Bismarck advertising firm Odney, which is assisting his campaign. “I am also confident that my management team and staff at the Tax Department will continue to provide exceptional service to the people of North Dakota in my absence.”
Rauschenberger did not return repeated messages left on his cellphone Wednesday and Thursday.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple met with Rauschenberger on Wednesday but wasn’t informed about the leave of absence at that time, spokesman Jeff Zent said.
Zent said the governor expressed his concerns to Rauschenberger about his job duties and health.
“And the tax commissioner told the governor that he’s very confident that he can successfully complete a treatment program and fulfill his duties,” Zent said.
Zent said Dalrymple didn’t know about Rauschenberger’s alcohol problems when he appointed him to the job. He said Dalrymple first learned about it when he was told July 21 that Rauschenberger had sought treatment.
North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Bob Valeu released a statement Thursday saying he hopes Rauschenberger “is able to overcome this personal challenge and address his issues,” but he added that Rauschenberger is a public figure who admitted to using poor judgment Tuesday, “and this makes it a public matter.”
“There were already many unanswered questions yesterday. Today’s surprise decision by Rauschenberger to take a leave of absence, along with new information of his involvement in a traffic accident earlier on Tuesday morning, only raises more troubling questions,” Valeu said.
According to the accident report from Bismarck police, Rauschenberger was driving his 2007 Chevy Tahoe at 8:21 a.m. Tuesday on North Washington Street about six blocks west of the Capitol when he rear-ended a vehicle that was stopped in traffic. The vehicle, a 2004 Dodge driven by a 41-year-old Bismarck woman, then struck a third vehicle in front of it, a 2013 Subaru driven by a 37-year-old Bismarck woman.
No one was injured. Rauschenberger’s vehicle sustained an estimated $3,000 in damage, while the other two vehicles each had about $1,000 in damage, the report states.
Rauschenberger told police he had looked down and wasn’t paying attention, and when he looked up it was too late and he struck the vehicle, the report states. He was cited for care required, which carries a $30 fine.
Regarding the rollover crash later that day, Rauschenberger said in a statement Wednesday that he used “poor judgment” when he lent his SUV to a man he had met in treatment. Mandan police said the driver, 22-year-old Jesse Larson of Mandan, was alone in the Tahoe when it rolled on Memorial Highway, and Larson wasn’t seriously injured. Police cited him for reckless driving and DUI.
Valeu questioned how much time from work Rauschenberger has missed, whether he was under political pressure to conceal his addiction and who will oversee the tax department in his absence.
Deputy Tax Commissioner Joe Morrissette said he will oversee the department while Rauschenberger is on unpaid leave. Morrissette was hired effective Jan. 1 after working 12 years as a state budget analyst and eight years for Legislative Council.
Morrissette said Rauschenberger told him in late July that he was seeking treatment. Morrissette said he didn’t know exactly how much time Rauschenberger had missed due to treatment, noting that as someone serving in an elected office, Rauschenberger was often out of the office for various meetings, speaking engagements and campaign functions and didn’t log his leave time. He said Rauschenberger missed “at least a full week” for in-patient treatment.
Valeu also questioned why Rauschenberger’s statements were coming from Odney and not the tax department. Morrissette said the department is working on a news release about the situation, but its public information officer is on vacation this week.
“I don’t like the fact that it seems like we’re being slow on that, but we are working on one and hopefully we’ll get that out tomorrow,” he said.
As for whether Dalrymple still has confidence in Rauschenberger’s ability to do the job, “The governor said that we’ll know more once he completes treatment,” Zent said.
Rauschenberger’s annual salary is $108,202, or about $2,080 per week.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.