Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and first lady Diann Torres took a trip to Oregon and Alaska in 2018 on business or first-class airfare that was paid by the CNMI government, during which the first couple attended a Republican Party political rally in Oregon.
Department of Finance’s finance and accounting director Bernadita C. Palacios talked about the first couple’s Oregon and Alaska trip in her testimony Friday before the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee that is investigating the Torreses’ travels and expenditures.
Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) showed Palacios a copy of a travel authorization indicating that on or about April 28 to May 8, 2018, Torres and his wife took a trip from Saipan to Oregon and Alaska, with other stops in between.
Sablan said that, according to the initial travel authorization, the purpose of this trip was for the governor to meet with a federal officer Gary Kuwabara from the U.S. Department of Defense as well as Craig Campbell in Alaska regarding Alaska aerospace.
Palacios said the governor requested the travel authorization and that it’s her signature on the travel authorization that certifies that funds were available for this trip.
Palacios agreed with Sablan based on the documents presented that the total airfare for the first couple for that trip cost the government a total of $16,250 or $8,125 for each one. Palacios said the boarding pass and the itinerary that are attached to the travel document indicated that the airfare was listed as “business class unrestricted.”
The director said she’s not sure of any public purpose for this trip for Diann Torres and that there was no trip report.
She also agreed that, based on the documents, Ralph DLG Torres received compensation, including lodging and per diem or stipend, during this entire period of travel.
Sablan also showed a copy of a travel voucher that itemized the governor’s expenditure in the amount of $1,064 for lodging in Oregon.
Palacios said in the governor’s amended travel authorization, it was then-Finance Secretary Larrisa Larson who signed it. Palacios said she did not see that amended travel authorization.
Sablan said the travel authorization was subsequently amended on April 13, 2018, to include stipend and lodging and justification to meet with potential business partners in Oregon.
In response to Sablan’s question, Palacios said she does not know who are the potential business partners mentioned in the amended travel authorization. The director said she does not know the nature of this business and that there was no trip report. Palacios said she has not knowledge if Gov. Ralph DLG Torres indeed met Kuwabara and Campbell. She said she does not know if there was a public purpose in that Oregon stop.
Sablan said that, according to the travel voucher and supporting documents attached, Torres stopped in Oregon from April 28 to 30 before heading to Alaska. Palacios said she’s not aware of any official government business that was conducted during this stop in Oregon.
Sablan then showed some photos that were taken from the screenshots of a political rally in Oregon on April 30, 2018. Palacios identified the first couple when shown one photo. She said she does not recognize any other government officials in that one photo. Palacios said she’s not aware that Torres was planning to make a campaign stop in Oregon during this trip.
Palacios agreed with Sablan that had she known about their plan to attend the rally, she would have raised concerns. “You can’t go on a political matter with government authorization. It’s not allowed,” the director said.
She agreed with Sablan that government funds should not be used to pay for any portion of expenses incurred for political campaign, including travel, per diem, lodging and car rental.