Gov. Benigno R. Fitial’s trips within and outside the CNMI cost taxpayers at least $124,399 between October 2007 and early August 2012—an average of almost $25,000 a year, based on Department of Finance documents obtained by Saipan Tribune yesterday.
This may not be the full amount, however, and is only based on Finance’s account ledger print, and has yet to be cross-checked with almost 2-inch thick travel vouchers and travel authorizations, among other things.
Travel advances ranged from $175 to $6,592.50 based on the ledger print.
However, samples of the travel authorizations and vouchers showed that one trip alone could cost up to $17,000, inclusive of airfare, per diem, and so-called official representation.
A day trip to Rota in January this year, for example, cost $312.75, inclusive of $219 airfare with Freedom Air and per diem of $93.75.
Press secretary Angel Demapan, when asked for comment, said this figure comes out to an average of $24,880 per year, which he said is a “conservative amount considering that it includes travel within the CNMI and beyond the CNMI at a period when the Fitial administration was defending the Commonwealth’s rights to self-government before U.S. Congress and related agencies.”
Former representative and lieutenant governor Diego Benavente separately said the over $124,000, if it’s indeed the complete travel expenses of the governor, “doesn’t seem a lot” in a five-year period.
But he said he would be interested to find out how much has been claimed for official representation on top of the per diem rate on all these trips.
Rep. Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan) said if the official trips are justified, then it’s okay. But he said the outcome of those trips should have been shared with the public for transparency.
These expenses do not include the governor’s most recent three-week trip to Hawaii, American Samoa, Florida, California, and Idaho for official and personal reasons, in August. That was around the time a resolution impeaching the governor for 16 allegations of felony, corruption, and neglect of duty was pre-filed and later introduced.
Among the governor’s trips were those to Rota, Guam, Hawaii, the Federated States of Micronesia, American Samoa, and the U.S. mainland, many of which were to Washington, D.C. and California.
One of those trips to Washington, D.C. was in February 2010 when the governor and his companions dined on 13 lbs of lobster, racking up a restaurant billing of $448.25 at The Palm Restaurant.
That bill is almost the equivalent of a biweekly payroll of a minimum wage earner in the CNMI, at $5.55 an hour.
Some lawmakers said yesterday it should be disclosed whether this was claimed as “official representation” or included in the “per diem” rate. They said if the governor dined with fellow CNMI government officials who also had individual per diem, then the governor should not ask taxpayers to foot the bill in the guise of official representation.
The press secretary asked whether the dinner receipt indicates who the governor was with.
“The governor, on numerous occasions, hosts meetings with other officials and business investors who express interest in coming to the CNMI. The governor knows this is nothing more than a smear campaign by Rep. [Janet] Maratita,” Demapan said.
The press secretary said other elected officials’ records should be examined.
“There are far more questionable expenditures than food. Quite frankly, the Fitial administration is proud of its record of having the lowest official representation expenses in our Commonwealth’s history. And this is not hearsay, the record speaks for itself. The root of the problem is an absolute biased media who turn a blind eye on everything else not detrimental to this administration. Like that’s supposed to solve the problems of the day,” he said.
In August 2011, pictures of the governor, his staff, and other government officials dining on lobsters and steaks while traveling on taxpayer-paid official business raised some eyebrows, despite assurances from the administration that they stick to the standard per diem rate.
The circulated photos showed them having lobster and steak dinners during trips to Washington, D.C., California, or other places.