Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios said Wednesday that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres should testify before the House of Representatives Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee because, at the end of the day, he is the only one who can answer all the questions or allegations about his expenditures of public funds and travels that are the subject of the JGO investigation.
At his closing statements during his appearance before the committee, Palacios said he cannot answer some questions, among them how 235,000 gallons of water were used within one month at his residence. Palacios said that what he can tell the committee is that such amount of water use is “extraordinary unusual” for a residence, even if there are 10 people using that water.
He said the matter that the JGO is looking at borders on misdeeds, misappropriation of funds, waste of government resources, abuses, and allegation of criminality—not very pleasant issues to discuss particularly for him as lieutenant governor, and with Torres as the one being investigated.
He concedes that the committee’s oversight authority is critical for good governance but only the governor can answer some of the questions raised at the hearing, such as why Torres thought it a good idea to go to the Northern Islands with Robert Harrington, of YouTube channel Deer Meat for Dinner, to expose the frontiers of the Commonwealth—in the midst of a lockdown and a global pandemic.
Palacios said he didn’t “spill the beans” on anybody, but there will be people who would say so. “You guys are intelligent enough,” Palacios told the JGO members, adding that the committee already has those “beans” by having boxes of information that they have acquired through an Open Government Act from the Department of Finance.
“The beans are there. I didn’t bring it. It’s public records. And you have the right to discern that, and look into the matter whether there is fraud, abuses, [and] waste,” he pointed out.
Palacios noted that there are some people saying on social media that he is throwing the governor under the bus. “I did not throw him under the bus. He ran in front of the bus,” he said.
But, in order for Torres to come out of the issues unscathed or at least minimize the damage to his reputation, he has to be the one to come before the JGO Committee and clarify matters, Palacios said.
“And I hope that he does. I really do,” he said.
Palacios pointed out that Torres had stated that he has nothing to hide, that he will answer to the JGO Committee at the appropriate time.
“The buck stops here,” he said.
Palacios concedes that he should have been more specific and not signed or approved some of Torres’ first-class travels but, at the end of the day, those funds that Torres used for his travels are his discretionary funds or operations fund that were appropriated for his office and only Torres has the expenditure authority for those funds. “What I am saying is that even if I signed them [or not], I can assure you those travels would still have occurred,” he said.
Palacios said that, although he has his personal opinion about the issues and that there were red flags, he cannot say “yes” or “no” whether Torres abused his authority.
“But I sincerely hope that, in light of what has come up and what has been discovered, he can explain. Why he travels first-class? I don’t know. Maybe it’s more comfortable for him,” Palacios said.
At the hearing, Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) pointed out that the records they have reviewed show that Torres incurred tens of thousands of dollars for utilities at his private residence that were paid using taxpayer dollars. For just the three-year period between November 2018—right after Super Typhoon Yutu—to May 2021, the records of utility billings totaled approximately $100,000 altogether. Sablan said that Torres’ monthly bills for power and water have routinely exceeded anywhere from $1,000 a month to as high as $4,000, $6,000, and even $16,000 for one month.
The lawmaker said it is their understanding that during the period in review, Torres has a commercial piggery operating on his private property. Sablan said it appears from the records that taxpayers may have been paying the power and water costs associated with that piggery on the governor’s property.
Sablan presented Commonwealth Utilities Corp. bills for Torres from March to April 2019 that shows water usage of approximately 264,000 gallons for total water costs of $15,309 for one month. From May to June 2019, the bills appear to show water usage of approximately 233,000 gallons for a total service charge of $13,535, Sablan said. From July to August 2019, the bill shows water usage of approximately 186,000 gallons for a total water service charge of about $10,800.
Palacios acknowledged that this water usage seems excessive.
In response to Rep. Edwin K. Propst’s (D-Saipan) questions, Palacios said he has only one personal security detail officer who primarily drives him to his office and official functions. He said his wife has no personal security detail.
Taking a swipe at the Torres couple, Propst asked Palacios if his personal security detail does personal errands for him and his wife such as shopping, and transporting and picking family members to and from schools. Palacios replied, “No,” and stated that if his personal security detail goes to his house on a Sunday for a family occasion, for example, he does it off the clock.
Propst stated that he asked about the personal security details because, in comparison to Palacios, the number of security personnel assigned to Torres is quite extensive. Propst said they all have witnessed that when Torres goes to certain events, sometimes he has several personal security details.
“It looks like something straight out of TV at the White House with the President,” said the lawmaker, who is a staunch critic of Torres and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Robert Guerrero.
Propst asked if the CNMI is under any type of certain danger. “Is there any Taliban here or any rogue terrorists or any threats to the Commonwealth you are aware of?” Propst asked.
Palacios said “no.” He also stated that he is a very simple person and a private person. “And I feel safe in the Commonwealth. I don’t need to have a squad of people watching me. That’s only me, maybe,” Palacios said.
Propst said they have heard testimonies that multiple personal security detail officers—as many as four—have accompanied Torres and first lady Diann T. Torres on some of their off-island trips.
“We are also aware of PSDs being utilized for personal task that include shopping, transporting children to and from school, accompanying the governor and the first lady on personal boating trips to Managaha or on fishing,” the lawmaker said.
Propst asked Palacios if these are appropriate public use of public safety officers. Palacios replied, “No,” but that some of those he believes would be legitimate. “I think he has at least one or two from DPS when he goes fishing to make sure that things are safe,” Palacios said.
The lieutenant governor said he understands where Propst is coming from because sometimes it’s an overkill in some of these PSDs’ assignments. “It just makes things look worse than they already are or look bad than they already are,” he said.
Palacios said that when the governor goes to Managaha with his family, he would bring at least one or two PSDs to make sure that things are safe, especially when he is with his family. “But four or five is just an overkill,” he said.
Also, when arriving at the airport, the DPS chief would meet Torres on the tarmac as soon as he steps out the plane and escort him out of the chain link fence without even having to go through the secured area to clear Customs and Quarantine, said JGO Committee chair Rep. Celina R. Babauta.
Palacios said he does not get the same treatment because he refused that protocol when it was offered to him by the commissioner in the early part of his tenure.
In response to Sablan’s question, Palacios said he has never taken a DPS boat to Rota, Managaha, Tinian, Northern Islands, or Guam.
Sablan asked Palacios if he has any idea why Torres has at times opted to take government boats accompanied by PSDs on trips.
“No. maybe he likes to ride on a boat. I don’t know,” the lieutenant governor said.
Sablan said the records also show the governor using federally funded DPS Boating Safety vessels for fishing trips and personal excursion while accompanied by DPS Boating Safety officers. Sablan noted that DPS does receive a Boating Safety federal grant.
Palacios agreed with Sablan that in his view it is an improper use of federal grants because those grants are usually very purpose-specific in what are allowed and disallowed.
As to consequences for violating the conditions in these federal grants, Palacios said at the very least, the grantor may review those disallowed expenditures and put a sanction on the grants, right up to losing a grant completely for a couple of years.
Palacios agreed with Sablan that as a matter of policy, he would consider it an improper use of search and rescue boats to take these vessels out for fishing and recreation.
Sablan said the records they reviewed also show that Torres utilized DPS Boating Safety resources, including search and rescue boats, multiple Boating Safety officers, 1,000 of gallons of government funded fuel on more than 85 boating trips, totaling hundreds of hours between March 2017 and July 2020.
Sablan said the trips include going to Rota, Tinian, Guam, Managaha, Goat Island, and the Northern Islands and that many of these vessels’ usage reports indicate no particular destination. “But we do know from the testimonies we’ve heard so far that some of the governor’s boating trips were for recreational fishing in open water,” she said.
Sablan said some of the trips appear to be sunset cruises or happy hour trips to Managaha with the first lady and other individuals.
Palacios agreed with Sablan that these are improper use of government resources, police officers, police boats, government fuel, and other public funded supplies.
Palacios answered “absolutely not” when asked if his wife has ever taken any of these DPS Boating Safety boat for recreational purpose.