OPA: Travel restrictions violated


So far, travel policies and practices differ across the CNMI government and no uniform government travel policy by regulation has been adopted. Also, there have been instances when the law that prohibits first and business class air travel have been violated.

These, among other findings, were discovered in a review the Office of the Public Auditor did on the CNMI government travel policy and Public Auditor Michael Pai recommended to the Legislature to review current travel laws and address any conflicts over official government travel.

Pai recommended to the Department of Finance to adopt a uniform travel policy by regulation and restrict the purchase of first class, business class, or any other premium class designation and provide training and guidance how per diem is computed. The OPA report did not state which department was found to be in violation.

Pai said that implementing OPA’s recommendations will address the report’s findings to comply with the law.

The OPA audit pointed out that the Legislature passed Public Law 15-86 in September 2017, mandating a uniform government travel policy that will apply to all branches, departments, divisions, agencies, and autonomous agencies of the CNMI government. Yet it now appears that Finance has failed to do this.

OPA said travel policies, per diem rates, and calculations vary across all CNMI government entities, except for agencies that that have adopted the same policies and rates established by the Finance Department for the Executive Branch.

“This causes per diem disparity among government employees traveling on official government business, perhaps enriching some while penalizing others,” OPA said.

In addition, OPA found instances where the CNMI government bought first or business class tickets, in violation of the law that prohibits premium air travel for government-paid travel outside the Commonwealth.

OPA also found conflicting legislation adopted by the Legislature requiring agencies in one law to follow a uniform travel policy by regulation, and in another, to adopt their own travel policy.

OPA said Finance’s current travel policies and practices are guided by previous directives and memoranda issued by former governors and other government officials.

OPA said the existing per diem rates used by Finance were set more than two decades ago and have not been updated to determine if such rates are excessive or enough to accommodate current travel costs.

OPA said the current system makes the CNMI government vulnerable to waste of government funds. Given that the CNMI government is currently facing another economic plight, it is essential that adherence to the travel law be enforced to ensure that fraud, waste, and abuse does not occur, it said.

OPA added that establishing a uniform travel policy will not only ensure uniformity across the CNMI government, but will also demonstrate accountability of taxpayer dollars.

OPA said the Finance secretary has agreed with OPA’s findings and stated that Finance is working to adopt a uniform regulation by Oct. 1, 2020. Finance has also notified the Travel Section employees and department heads regarding the current restrictions on the purchase of first class travel, that any travel authorizations with premium class travel will be returned immediately.

OPA also cited the CNMI Report on the Audit of Financial Statements for fiscal years 2015 and 2018, which states that travel expenditures increased by about 27% for autonomous agencies and about 152% for the CNMI Executive Branch.

In fiscal year 2018, the report says, the overall total travel expense for the CNMI reached $17.2 million, a 93% increase from the overall total in fiscal year 2015.

The OPA furnished copies of the report to Finance Secretary David Atalig, Senate President Victor B. Hocog (R-Rota), and Speaker Blas Jonathan T. Attao (R-Saipan).

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com
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