Uniform travel policy for the CNMI pushed
Rep. Tina Sablan (D-Saipan) is urging Attorney General Edward Manibusan to pursue the recovery of public funds that have been spent on government-funded first-class travel, which she described as illegal.
At the House of Representatives session Wednesday, members of the minority weighed in on the Office of the Public Auditor’s draft report on government travel expenditures, noting a 27% increase among autonomous agencies, and 152% for the Executive Branch, between 2015 and 2018.
OPA also recommended the adoption of a uniform travel policy for the CNMI, but stressed that purchases of first-class, business-class, or any other premium class designation is illegal and is a clear violation of the Commonwealth law.
“It is quite distressing, depressing, disappointing. …What suddenly happened that demanded an increase in the Executive Branch of 152%?” asked Rep. Edwin K. Propst (D-Saipan). “We have Commonwealth law that prohibits first class travel, business travel, premium cost designation, but it’s been violated, multiple times, and with impunity.”
Propst also criticized Manibusan’s silence on the matter. “How does he not make a comment on all of this? We have records of all the first-class travel that have been made multiple times, not just by government officials but by nongovernment officials who have traveled on taxpayer dime.
“At the very least, there’s $1,000 fine per infraction. Yet we have not heard so much as a comment from the attorney general as to whether this is acceptable or not. Just one of our many laws that seem to be ignored and dismissed. We know the abuse that has happened with first-class travel and other things, but again, it doesn’t seem to really go anywhere,” Propst said.
Uniform travel policy
At the session, Sablan said that she does not agree that the Legislature has no role to play in ensuring that the government adopts a uniform travel policy. OPA recommended for lawmakers to review the current laws and suggested that the conflicts be addressed.
“We have already enacted laws that require a uniform policy, and we have also enacted laws that contradict that policy of uniformity by allowing certain agencies to adopt their own travel rules. …I think that we should look closely at the ramifications of these conflicts and the ramifications of not having a uniform policy,” she said.
Sablan noted that there are zero travel regulations in the books, and that the abuses are now documented in an OPA audit, and are coming to light in the investigations the Legislature is doing. “We in the Legislature absolutely have a role to play in reining in waste and abuse and ensuring that this government is exercising fiscal prudence, and consistently with the law and travel and all expenditures.”
According to Sablan, with discrepancies and outright violations of law, including illegal government-funded first-class travel, it is absolutely within the legislators’ jurisdiction to exercise legislative oversight and require accountability of both Finance and the attorney general to control the expenditures of public funds and ensure compliance with public laws.
With the need for a uniform travel policy highlighted, it was also mentioned during the session that the legislators will work with, and assist the Department on Finance should help be needed to put together the uniform policy.