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Port: ND has done Michelle Kommer an injustice and I'm not sure it can be entirely fixed

How difficult will it be to attract talented and hard-working people, like Kommer and Holt and others, to serve in our state government when this ugly saga serves as a testament to how they can be treated?

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North Dakota Department of Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer speaks on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, during the The Chamber's Eggs and Issues event at the Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — Up until just recently, Michelle Kommer was a member of Gov. Doug Burgum's cabinet.

She was the head of the Commerce Department, specifically, a job she has told me she wasn't sure she wanted in the first place. She's had success in the private sector and was a little intimidated at the idea of going to work in government.

But she felt a calling to serve her state and agreed to take the job.

The way she was treated while in office was an injustice, and the hits have kept coming right up through this week.

State Auditor Josh Gallion, who has created no small amount of turbulence during his tenure in that position, released an audit of the Commerce Department.

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One of his findings had to do with the process of developing a new state logo. Gallion's office alleged criminal activity and referred it to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office for investigation. Stenehjem outsourced the investigation to South Dakota law enforcement to avoid conflicts of interest.

The review found no criminal activity .

The problems with this process are manifest.

For one thing, Gallion's suggestion of criminal misconduct was based on a tortured interpretation of state statute written to govern the use of procurement cards. It's one thing for an auditor to be aggressive; it's quite another to waterboard the legal code until it coughs up a justification for a criminal referral.

For another, this process has created thousands in out-of-pocket legal expenses for two public servants who were doing their jobs. Both Kommer and former Commerce Senior Manager Holly Holt hired lawyers, as they should have given that they stood accused of potential criminal wrong-doing.

Kommer filed a claim to be reimbursed for $9,858 in legal expenses (a modest sum, frankly, given the circumstances), and Holt requested $2,220.

The state denied Kommer's claim. I am uncertain as to the status of Holt's.

Think about that for a moment.

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These women were doing their job. An auditor, using a dubious interpretation of the law, alleges criminal misconduct, and suddenly you're paying for a lawyer out of your own pocket, and you aren't being reimbursed despite a thorough review finding exactly nothing.

Yesterday the legislature's Audit and Fiscal Review committee accepted Gallion's audit findings. Kommer testified at the committee and forcefully defended herself. She remains indignant as to how she was treated both by our state government and the news media.

"I would like my money back, not because I care about the money, because I don't, but as a symbol that reason prevails over chaos and good prevails over evil," she told the committee.

There is hope, yet, for Kommer to at least be reimbursed.

Mike Nowatzki, a spokesman for Burgum, told Bismarck Tribune reporter Jack Dura that the governor "plans to fully support legislation with retroactive application that will be pursued this upcoming session by (the state's Risk Management Division) to authorize the reimbursement of criminal defense costs in appropriate circumstances."

Even if that happens, and it should, there is damage done that cannot be undone.

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How difficult will it be to attract talented and hard-working people, like Kommer and Holt and others, to serve in our state government when this ugly saga serves as a testament to how they can be treated?

It wasn't just Kommer and Holt and others who were hurt by this audit fiasco.

It was all of us.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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