North Dakota public entities spend sparingly on alcohol using p-cards
Third in a four-part series examining how the state of North Dakota's purchasing card program works: There is likely just one purchasing card among the thousands held by employees of state agencies that can buy alcohol. It's held by the manager of the governor's residence.
BISMARCK — The rules for purchasing card use in North Dakota are rigid.
Employees of the state agencies, public universities and school districts may not swipe the cards to make any personal purchases. All cards restrict the purchase of jewelry and the withdrawal of cash, and the vast majority also prohibit entertainment.
There is likely just one card among the thousands held by employees of state agencies that is permitted to buy alcohol, said Jeff Larshus, the Office of Management and Budget's director of state financial services. It belongs to the manager of the governor’s residence, a position currently filled by Charles Murphy.
The residence manager has long been allowed to buy food and alcohol with public funds to entertain the governor’s guests and visiting dignitaries. Capitol Facilities Manager John Boyle said he’s not exactly sure when the practice began, but it has been that way since at least former Gov. George Sinner's tenure in the late 1980s. Back then, the residence manager likely paid for the alcohol with cash or check, but now it's done with purchasing cards.
"There are (dignitaries) who come to town, and they’re fed. You also have wine at these sorts of things," Boyle said. "If Bill Gates comes here, we’re going to feed him."
Purchasing cards, or p-cards as they're commonly called, act almost as company credit cards for government entities. They allow public employees to pay for everything from plane tickets to office supplies without checks or reimbursements. In 2018, the 180 enrolled public entities spent a combined total of more than $123 million using p-cards. Previous Forum News Service articles introduced the state's p-card program and explored how they are used for travel expenses .
An exception to the rule
A Forum News Service analysis of the state’s p-card data found only three transactions for alcohol to be consumed at the North Dakota Governor’s Residence since 2016.
In two transactions from May 2016, the residence manager spent a total of about $280 on 20 bottles of wine and two six-packs of beer at Captain Jack's Liquor Land in Bismarck. The alcoholic refreshments and cooking wine were bought for a dinner hosted by then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple with the state Board of Higher Education, university presidents, then-Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and the governor's chief of staff, Ron Rauschenberger.
A record of the meal shows Dalrymple and his guests dined on pork loin stuffed with spinach, mushroom and Italian sausage, potato galette and orange souffle.
About a week into the 2017 legislative session, the residence manager spent $265 on 12 containers of boxed wine and three 24-packs of Miller Lite at the same store. This time, it was Gov. Doug Burgum hosting a reception for state lawmakers.
The gathering happens every two years and all 141 legislators are invited to attend, Boyle said. A similar reception with alcohol took place in January 2019, Boyle said, but Forum News Service found no corresponding purchase for alcohol. Boyle speculated that perhaps there had already been alcohol in the house from previous events or that the governor paid for it himself.
The 2016 and 2017 events occurred at the old governor's residence, which has since been demolished. In March 2018, the first family moved into the new 13,700-square-foot mansion, which sits on state Capitol grounds in Bismarck. The residence served as the venue for just over 30 “public side” events between January and November 2019, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.
Boyle estimated it costs taxpayers in the state about $200,000 a year to maintain the residence. That figure includes the salaries and benefits of the three full-time employees who work there. In addition to the residence manager, there’s a housekeeper and a chef, who cooks food bought by the first family.
The mansion cost about $4.9 million to build, with $4 million coming from a special Capitol grounds fund and the rest coming via private donation.
Gift cards to liquor stores
While only one cardholder can buy alcohol, there is one other circumstance under which those working at a state agency can make purchases at liquor stores: service awards.
State employees receive awards on certain anniversaries of their start date with the agency under a program that was created in 1992. They may choose a tangible gift or a gift card in the amount of the award, which ascends based on the number of years an employee has worked for an agency.
For example, an employee can receive a gift worth up to $25 after three years with an agency, but after 30 years, the gift can be worth up to $300, according to North Dakota Administrative Code. The funds for the awards come out of the agency's publicly funded budgets.
Several employees in the Attorney General’s Office and the Insurance Department wanted to spend the amount due to them in service awards at Williquors. Abiding by their employees' wishes, the two agencies spent a total of $225 on gift cards from the Bismarck liquor store in 2016 and 2017.
“Gift cards/certificate up to the appropriate amount are purchased for the individual employee at the retailer they choose, whether that is a spa, a bookstore, big box store, online retailer, or liquor store,” Attorney General spokeswoman Liz Brocker wrote in reply to records request.
Larshus, the OMB's director of state financial services, said he was a little surprised the purchases went through, but he noted that each agency decides from which establishments its employees can choose to receive gifts.
The state spent nearly $484,000 on service and retirement awards between July 2017 and June 2019. The Department of Human Services gave out the most with about $110,000 in awards, followed by the departments of Transportation and Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Drinking for educational purposes
Surprisingly, p-card transaction records show that one of the state’s few spenders on alcohol is Lake Region State College in Devils Lake.
The booze is needed for “live drinking workshop(s)” as part of the police academy’s driving-under-the-influence detection training.
John Maritato, the director of the Peace Office Training program, has spent about $330 on Captain Morgan, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and other hard liquors since February 2016. Since buying alcohol is normally forbidden, College President Doug Darling has to sign p-card exception forms so the purchases from Liquor Locker can go through.
After outside volunteers of legal drinking age have knocked back several shots, the officers-in-training administer and interpret field sobriety tests, like the one-leg stand and the walk-and-turn. Transportation is, of course, provided for volunteers to and from the training session.
Students in the 23-hour training course also take written tests, write reports and “testify” in mock court, according to an administrative guide.
Graduates of the larger one-semester program are eligible to get a peace officer license and can be hired as police officers by departments throughout the state.
Note: The 2019 dataset does not include a complete listing of expenditures from North Dakota's institutions of higher education.