“Are you in fact telling us the state auditor is lying to us? You can’t both be correct.”
Sent by text message to North Dakota State College of Science President Dr. John Richman, the question was read to an audience of approximately 75, mostly NDSCS employees. They were attending a Wednesday, April 17 employee forum at the Stern Cultural Center on NDSCS’ Wahpeton campus.
Two days earlier, the North Dakota State Auditor’s Office reported that NDSCS engaged in inappropriate activities surrounding a proposed career workforce academy, is not meeting TrainND Southeast program goals and is overstating program results.
The employee forum, Richman said, would provide an opportunity to be open and transparent. He hoped most of the allocated hour would be used for answering questions.
In addition to the Wahpeton audience, the forum had an online audience. Questions could be asked in person or through text message. Toward the end of the hour, live and submitted statements were mingled with the questions.
The credibility and actions of three individuals — State Auditor Josh Gallion, NDSCS Vice President of Workforce Affairs Tony Grindberg and Richman himself — were questioned during the forum.
“I’ll let you determine (if Gallion is lying), okay?” Richman said. “You read the auditor’s report and you read my response.”
The auditor’s report stated there was an undisclosed conflict of interest between Grindberg and the Flint Group firm. The Flint Group was contracted for $39,500 — a figure Richman said he decided — to develop a strategic plan.
“Tony’s wife, Karen, works with the Flint Group,” Richman said. “That’s widely known. I knew that before Tony was hired as our vice president.”
Grindberg, a Fargo city commissioner, told the audience he had not recommended the Flint Group work with NDSCS. The state report, however, said he was personally involved with recommending and engaging Flint Group.
Mentioning that he had disclosed his own consulting business on a conflict of interest form, Grindberg said if he could have changed anything, he would have disclosed his wife’s connection with the Flint Group.
“It’s easy to look in the rearview mirror,” Grindberg continued.
When Grindberg completes the form next year, Richman said, he will include the Flint Group. It’s agreed, Richman added shortly after, that Grindberg didn’t include the information.
“In hindsight, maybe he should. We’ll correct that,” Richman continued.
Submitted questions and comments were critical of Grindberg.
“‘Will Grindberg be reprimanded for breaking policy?’” Richman read. “Under the circumstances, from what I know today, no.”
If someone else breaks policy like Grindberg allegedly did, another question asked, would they get a “free pass” like he apparently is?
“No,” Richman said. “I don’t believe Tony got a free pass. Go back to the intent of the policy, people. Disclose what we don’t know. We knew about (Karen Grindberg working for Flint Group).”
Two questions, two answers
Richman reiterated his disagreement that NDSCS engaged in any misleading or cover-up during the state audit.
The auditor’s office submitted what Richman called a very subjective request.
“An IT person or even myself can be challenged trying to come up with exactly what they were looking for with the request they provided to us,” he continued.
During the course of the audit, Richman added, a more specific request was submitted to the North Dakota University System’s information technology staff. The NDUS employees were given precise terms for their search, he continued.
“You ask two different questions and you get two different results,” Richman said. “When that happened, he (State Auditor Gallion) concludes that we obstructed and misled them. That’s what frustrates me the most in this process today.”
The State Auditor’s Office, Richman added, did not provide an explanation for the difference in questions.
“‘Do you think politics are playing a part in this investigation?’” he read. “I will leave that up to each one of you to decide.”
President and public
Richman’s character was also repeatedly addressed in submitted questions and comments.
The workforce career academy was described as “your blessed career academy,” as well as “your legacy academy.” Richman was also described as doing well under circumstances and an audience member’s disavowal of a criticism received applause.
“It seems like some people or groups just look for issues to create controversy and it’s a waste of time and money,” one commentator wrote.
The critic, however, had a question.
“Most of us disagree with the previous statement,” they wrote. “We believe you have done a poor job of ethically leading the college. Where is your integrity?”
Richman’s answer was immediate.
“It’s on my face, people,” he said. “I’ll look any of you in the eye and I’ll tell you exactly what I know when I know it. I have not lied (and am) not covering anything up. Nor is anyone else. That would be something for you to determine, for you to believe.”
For more information
The full state auditor’s report is available online at https://www.nd.gov/auditor/2019-north-dakota-state-college-science-division-workforce-affairs.
NDSCS’ current response is available online at ndscs.edu/auditresponse.
Daily News Media will continue to follow this story.
ST. PAUL — Legislation to fund agriculture, rural development and affordable workforce housing passed the Minnesota Senate Finance Committee this week.
The comprehensive omnibus budget bill places an emphasis on rural broadband expansion, invests in affordable manufactured/modular housing and home ownership, and prioritizes value-added agriculture opportunities that directly impact farmers.
“This legislation focuses on repurposing existing resources to directly impact the bottom line of Minnesota farm families,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom, chief author of the bill and chair of the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance Committee. “Low commodity prices have severely affected the agriculture community, especially dairy and grain farmers. This bill focuses on expanding markets and positively impacting farmers in the barns and fields, rather than growing bureaucracy in St. Paul.”
Specifically, the bill makes a one-time investment in an innovative soybean processing and research facility near the University of Minnesota – Crookston; invests in the Dairy Modernization and Innovation program to help small dairy farms with small grants and low interest loans to finance the modernization of their farm infrastructure, such as robotic milking equipment; funds the Dairy Producer Margin Coverage Premium Assistance program to help dairy farmers with profitability; and increases dairy development grants to aid farmers in creating new business plans.
With Minnesota losing roughly one dairy farm a day in the past year, preserving the value-added dairy industry has been a focus at the state Capitol this year, according to Westrom, an Elbow Lake Republican.
The bill also funds the Minnesota “border-to-border” rural broadband expansion program at $30 million, a significant increase in the legislature’s appropriation over the last biennium.
“From health care, to education, to small businesses, broadband access is essential to our way of life in the twenty-first century,” added Westrom. “I consistently hear from rural community members that a lack of broadband limits their ability to flourish in Greater Minnesota, much like a lack of electricity did 75 years ago. This significant investment addresses this issue head-on.”
The budget legislation also prioritizes the most affordable forms of housing in Minnesota and places an emphasis on workforce housing and home ownership.
“Historically, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has not invested in manufactured or modular housing,” said Westrom. “By unit, it is the most affordable form of housing. While it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, this bill invests in expanding manufactured housing so that we can get the most affordable housing possible for the best value. When taxpayers are footing the bill and the need for more affordable housing is so great, this course of action makes the most sense.”
After passing the Senate Finance Committee, the bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
Wilkin County’s Economic Development Authority was recently formed and is working to grow the business community in the rural west-central Minnesota county.
The EDA has been reaching out to state and and regional business experts for information about available programs and loans. At the April 18 meeting, the group discussed holding meetings with their partners – the Wilkin County Board of Commissioners, Port Authority, Breckenridge City Council, Southern Valley Economic Development Authority, townships and West Central Initiatives – to explain what the authority does and has to offer. A brochure or pamphlet of some sort could be created, as well.
The committee consensus was to hold a partner meeting potentially in June, where each entity can share what they’re about and resources they have available.
Justin Neppl, executive director of SVEDA, suggested holding a “capital convention” at some point, where sources of capital in both Minnesota and North Dakota would be invited to give short presentations to pitch the programs they offer.
The EDA will also be invited to present at an upcoming county board meeting.
At the March 20 EDA meeting, the group recommended approval of the tax abatement policy to the Wilkin County Board of Commissioners.
James Lieman with the North Dakota Dept. of Commerce was a guest and answered questions for the EDA board members. He shared that it’s important to have buy-in from critical stakeholders, which leads to ownership and increased morale from the community overall.
He recommended before bringing in private sectors, it’s imperative to have a united focus and goal. When everyone has one voice, he explained, companies are going to want a joint buy-in.
In December 2018, the group heard from Andrew Gag, USDA assistant area director, on rural development programs available through the agency. They include several loan programs which can be leveraged by businesses within the county.
The next EDA board meeting will be held at 7 a.m. Thursday, May 9 at the Wilkin County recycling building in Breckenridge, Minnesota.