Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said Friday that he is ready to justify his reimbursement requests for purchases and travels “when the time is right,” in response to the House minority bloc’s report Thursday of the governor’s purchases and first-class travels, which they described as “questionable” or “illegal”.
Speaking at a radio news briefing last Friday, Torres acknowledged the investigations being done by the House Special Committee for Fiscal Review of Executive Expenditures committee, and affirmed that he will make all the needed justifications.
“They’re going to be going through a lot of scrutiny on different purchases and stuff. I will be happy to make those justifications when the time is right. I do know that all the reimbursement that I’ve done was in the best interest. …Whatever their concerns will be, I’ll be happy to make the justification on the reimbursements moving forward,” he said.
At the committee’s meeting last Thursday, minority lawmakers gave a glimpse of their findings by highlighting a travel to the U.S. mainland that Torres did in 2018.
At the same radio news briefing, Finance Secretary David Atalig said that he received a subpoena from the House committee for more documents. He said they will seeking legal advice to protect personal and private information. “We will comply. I have up to Aug. 4 to submit the documents and I assure I will comply [with] the subpoena,” Atalig added.
First class travel
In his presentation Thursday, Rep. Edwin K. Propst (D-Saipan) focused on Torres’ travel to Boise, Idaho in December 2018. Reportedly, Torres was supposed to meet with then-Idaho governor Clement Leroy “Butch” Otter to discuss educational partnerships and national priorities with the Department of the Interior.
Propst noted that the governor travelled from Saipan to Guam on economy, Guam to Honolulu on business, Honolulu to San Francisco on first class, San Francisco to Boise on first class, and on the return to Saipan from Boise, Torres flew first class or business class. The timeline of the governor’s trip was also highlighted, given it was less than two months after Super Typhoon Yutu hit the CNMI.
“Many of us were still without power and water. Hundreds of families were still without a roof over their head. Some of them were fortunate enough to have a tent. Life was very difficult, but the governor felt it was important for him to leave on Dec. 19,” said Propst.
The Office of the Public Auditor recently submitted to the Legislature a draft report on the audit of the CNMI government’s travel policy, which states that despite the law clearly stating that traveling first class and business class is prohibited, that there is evidence indicating that first or business class tickets were purchased in the past four years.
“This travel first class was prohibited, and is illegal. By law, that is not an opinion. That is a fact,” said Propst.
The minority bloc also brought attention to purchases made during the trip, as well as some food items, among others. According to Propst, Torres claimed these for office use when they are “clearly for personal consumption.”
An alcohol purchase for a bottle of Blue Label Scotch valued at $170.10, made in January 2019 at T-Galleria that, on the governor’s request for reimbursement, was listed as a gift for Guam Sen. Wil Castro. When asked about it, Castro acknowledged in an email to Rep. Tina Sablan (D-Saipan) that he hosted an “unofficial” reception at his home, attended by Torres, for volunteers and officials in January 2019, following the coordination of donated relief items to the CNMI due to Super Typhoon Yutu. However, he noted that “whatever was brought by the governor, I assure you that it was not delivered to me as a personal gift.”
Sablan also stated that records show receipts for meetings with unnamed investors, business partners, dignitaries, and other individuals who are not named, and that there are no descriptions of the public purpose or the nature of the meetings, that justify them.
MD: Torres to justify purchases, travel… Minority: Governor’s expenditure a “possible fraud”
KW: Minority, Ralph DLG Torres, Tina Sablan, Edwin K. Propst, David Atalig