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ND Game and Fish guns still missing; attorney general reviewing audit for possible civil, criminal action

BISMARCK – Eighteen firearms are still missing after a critical audit of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department found the agency didn’t properly inventory guns used in its hunter education program for at least eight years, department Director Terry Steinwand told lawmakers Wednesday.

Members of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee grilled Steinwand about the guns and a number of other deficiencies identified in the audit, including improperly reimbursing employees for meals, paying a landowner for hunting access on a tract of land he didn’t own and continuing to contract with a nonprofit organization that was involuntarily dissolved in 2003.

Steinwand said the department has completed or substantially completed 80 percent of the audit’s 44 recommendations.

“Honestly, we were all disappointed that we did so poorly in this audit, and everybody feels accountable for this. So there’s been a real buy-in from staff that we’re going to do better,” he said.

The audit pinpointed several instances of improper use of public funds, including annual and sick leave provided to a temporary employee and grants given to various groups even though no grant program had been established.

Audit Manager Jason Wahl said because the state auditor’s office concluded that the spending didn’t comply with state law, the findings were reported to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in a letter sent June 13.

Stenehjem said Wednesday he plans to meet with the Burleigh County state’s attorney to determine what, if any, action is warranted – “criminal, civil, or both.”

The audit, which was finalized June 3 and is the first-ever performance audit of the Game and Fish Department, found no evidence that guns provided to hunter education instructors as teaching aids were ever inventoried. Auditors identified more than 100 guns that weren’t inventoried, but later learned the number of guns associated with the program was significantly higher, Wahl said.

Steinwand said the department had to rebuild its inventory list by collecting all of the guns from hunter education volunteers and going so far as to contact gun manufacturers, dealers and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Some of the guns were privately owned, he said.

“This has been a very complicated process,” he said.

Steinwand said the department has verified the location of 704 guns in its inventory, and game wardens are still trying to track down 18 firearms, which is a higher number than the 10 missing guns the department reported last month.

“Some of these have been extremely difficult,” Steinwand said, adding the department contacted more than 1,500 active and inactive volunteer instructors. One of the former volunteers, whom the department has been unable to reach, is now a police officer in Atlanta, he said.

The vast majority of the firearms used in the program are .22-caliber rifles, 20-gauge shotguns and black powder rifles, he said.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, asked if volunteers or staffers who check out state-owned firearms were required to sign waivers to protect the state from litigation in the event of an accident, violation or inappropriate use of the firearm. Steinwand said they weren’t in the past but will be from now on as part of policies being developed per the audit recommendations.

Steinwand said the department has “turned over every stone out there” and some guns are still missing. He will meet with Stenehjem’s office to determine the next step, which might be filing a stolen weapons report.

“So it is possible that the state may be liable until something like that is conducted or completed?” Mock asked.

“That would be for legal counsel to answer,” Steinwand said.

Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, commended the Game and Fish Department’s response to the audit as an opportunity to improve.

Rep. Gary Kreidt, R-New Salem, chairman of the 20-member committee, asked Steinwand to provide an update on audit compliance at its next meeting, likely in early October.

Mike Nowatzki

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