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Probe on Torres’ public expenditures reopened

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House Judiciary and Governmental Operations chairwoman Celina Babauta has announced that the JGO Committee is reopening the Legislature’s investigation into the public expenditures of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres.

The investigation began in the 21st Legislature, and, although the special committee appointed to review executive expenditures did not complete its work, the members of the then-House minority did produce a report of our findings and recommendations for oversight, reform, and continued investigation in the 22nd Legislature.

Here are some of the highlights from that report:

1. Between January 2015 and July 2020, Gov. Torres took at least 102 trips that cost taxpayers an estimated half a million dollars in airfare, per diem and stipends, lodging, and ground/boat transportation. This included at least 40 first-class or business class trips. CNMI law prohibits the use of public funds for premium-class airfare for any person. Also, because the governor nearly always traveled with companions, including security detail, staff, and other government officials, the total cost of executive travel was actually greater.

2. Between December 2016 and December 2019, Gov. Torres’ spouse, first lady Diann Torres, took at least 31 government-funded trips, most of which were with the governor, including 14 first-class or business-class trips. The “first lady” is not an officially recognized government position, and Finance regulations bar the use of public funds for travel expenditures for non-government employees. Airfare costs alone for the first lady totaled approximately $82,000.

3. Most of these trips by the governor and his spouse lacked the detailed trip reports and public purpose justifications required by law and Finance regulation.

4. Gov. Torres appears to have conducted political and personal activities while on government travel, and received government-funded reimbursements, per diem, and lodging during political or personal stops.

5. Gov.r Torres’ three-week promotional trip to the Northern Islands in the summer of 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, cost the government more than $90,000 and involved intensive use of government resources, including public safety officers, search and rescue boats, fuel, vehicles, equipment, supplies, and staff from multiple agencies.

6. That same promotional trip to the Northern Islands also involved multiple violations of CNMI law and regulations, including the illegal release of non-native Sambar deer on Pagan; hunting and fishing in designated sanctuaries; and the improper use of public safety vehicles to transport the governor’s family members, friends, and associates on and around the islands.

7. Between January 2015 and December 2019, Gov. Torres incurred at least $150,000 in official representation and reimbursement costs to the government, including tens of thousands of dollars in unallowable types of costs deemed personal or political under Finance regulations. These expenses ranged from sponsorships of sports teams and a K-Pop concert in Guam, to reimbursements for personal gifts or items such as rifle cases and hunting gear; reimbursement for a car battery for Gov. Torres’ personal vehicle that was sold to a private citizen; and various lavish hostings of political operatives, “investors” and “business partners,” and unnamed associates.

8. Gov. Torres appears to have requested and received reimbursements for expenses charged to credit cards that did not belong to him. At least 24 different credit cards appear in the receipts he submitted to Finance.

9. Between January 2015 and February 2019, Gov. Torres received at least $17,500 in utility benefits paid by the government at his personal residence. The law does not specifically provide for government-paid utilities when public officials reside in their private homes, and Finance regulations list utility expenses for private individuals as an unallowable expenditure of public funds.

The 21st House’s minority report was presented in January and signed by myself and Reps.

Ed Villagomez, Sheila Babauta, Richard Lizama, Donald Manglona, and Franklin Reyes Babauta. Read the full report here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IhYEol7BIQg7PngeGAqrYW81NK8tJfem/view?usp=sharing

I am a member of the JGO Committee in the 22nd House, and I fully support chairwoman Babauta’s leadership and initiative in reopening this investigation, and, as she has put it, getting to the truth. I share her commitment, and the commitment of our colleagues on the committee, in conducting a fair, transparent, and thorough inquiry. Subpoenas will be issued. Hearings will be held. The governor will be afforded due process and an opportunity to fully respond to questions regarding his expenditures of public funds and conduct in public office.

The ultimate goal described in the 21st House’s minority report remains the same for your 22nd House leadership: to improve accountability for public funds and restore trust in the people’s government.

Christine-Marie Sablan (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Christina Marie E. Sablan is a member of the CNMI House of Representatives of the 22nd Legislature.

Christine-Marie Sablan (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
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