- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Several North Dakota Game and Fish Department employees have been asked to reimburse the state after an audit found they improperly billed for meals and other expenses, the agency’s director said Friday.

“They’ve been informed they will have to reimburse Game and Fish,” Terry Steinwand told The Associated Press.

The move comes after the state attorney general’s office told the agency in a letter this week that a civil suit could be initiated to recover the improperly paid funds.

“To the extent you or your agency does not seek the recovery of improper payments of public funds, this office will proceed to recover those funds regardless of whether payee is a current or former employee,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Matthew Sagsveen.

Game and Fish has been under fire since June when a review by the state auditor’s office criticized the agency’s misuse of public money and its “noncompliance with laws, rules and policies.”

The audit found there were more than 4,800 per diem payments made to employees over a nearly three-year period that ended in April 2013. Auditors reviewed only 20 of the payments and 12 - or 60 percent - were found to have been billed improperly. The review found $1,535 in over payments for such things as meals and motel expenses.

Steinwand said the agency also is doing an internal audit to determine if any other employees were paid improperly during the audit period.

“With that type of error rate, we’re going back and looking at all of them,” Steinwand said.

Game and Fish regulates hunting, fishing and trapping; manages land; and promotes conservation. The agency does not receive money from North Dakota’s general fund and is instead supported by state licensing fees and federal tax money from the sale of firearms, ammunition and other sporting equipment.

The audit said the agency also wasn’t complying with procurement requirements and “used no formal bidding process or an appropriate alternative procurement process for services exceeding $25,000.” The agency also was criticized for not safeguarding sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers, and that some employees dealing with such information did not undergo the required background checks, the audit said.

The audit found that Game and Fish also could not account for about 100 guns missing from a volunteer hunter safety program. Steinwand said the number of missing guns is now fewer than 18 and the agency is continuing to locate them.

Other problems uncovered by the audit included paying a person money for hunting access on land that he didn’t own and providing improper funding to a nonprofit group.

The attorney general’s letter to Game and Fish this week also asked what the agency is doing to recoup money to the group, identified by Steinwand as the North Dakota Landowner-Sportsman Council.

Steiwand said the agency is still investigating the amount of money paid to the group that promotes hunting access on private land. He said payments to the group, which include funding for “landowner appreciation banquets” are now suspended.

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