‘Unusual’ and ‘excessive’

Palacios testifies about Torres’ first-class travels, water and power bills, reimbursements

Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios testifies before the Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee yesterday at the House of Representatives chamber. (FERDIE DE LA TORRE)

Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios appeared before the House of Representatives Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee yesterday and testified that he had raised a concern with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres about the governor’s first-class travels using government funds. He also described as “unusual” and “excessive” the governor’s monthly water and power bills that were being paid using taxpayer funds, and found “amazing” Torres’ reimbursement of personally purchased items.

In response to some JGO members’ questions, Palacios said it would appear that Torres abused his office and improperly used boats that were purchased using federal funds.

When asked point blank, though, if he believes there is sufficient reason and justification to call for the immediate resignation of Torres or move for his impeachment, Palacios demurred, saying that is a legislative prerogative.

Palacios is the highest ranking official thus far to be summoned to appear in front of the committee. At the start of the hearing, JGO chair Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) stated that Palacios is the first witness in these JGO hearings to appear without a counsel and that she hopes that other witnesses would mirror the lieutenant governor’s example.

The JGO is investigating Torres’ expenditures of public funds and travels.

Since the start of the JGO investigation, committee members have already questioned police officers and administrative personnel. Babauta said most witnesses had testified that they do not recall or had asked for simple questions to be translated into the vernacular, and that all of them had brought lawyers who raised issues regarding procedures and language.

Before answering to JGO members’ questions, Palacios thanked the JGO for allowing him to say a few words. “Let me be candid with you. I never thought that when I took my oath of office as lieutenant governor that I would find myself in this position, having to respond to a subpoena to appear before this committee,” Palacios said.

He said according to the subpoena, the JGO Committee is seeking information from him on expenditures incurred by Torres for travel, including those of the first lady Diann T. Torres.

Palacios said the JGO is also seeking information on the governor’s purchases of certain equipment and the use of police officers to serve as security details for the governor and the first lady.

“To be at the center of your investigative proceedings [puts] me in a very awkward position as lieutenant governor. But I am here,” he said.

Palacios said that, as a former representative and senator, he acknowledges that the oversight responsibility of the Legislature is an important part of the checks and balance system of the government. “I respect this process by which you have called on my appearance. I will do my best to answer your questions to the best of my ability,” he said.

In response to Rep. Vicente Camacho’s (D-Saipan) question, Palacios said he is familiar with the Commonwealth Code that restricts the use of government funds for first-class or business travel.

Camacho pointed out that Palacios’ signature appears on some of Torres’ travel authorization, including trips during which the governor traveled first-class.

Palacios said when he signed the governor’s TAs, he was not aware that the government would be paying for Torres’ first-class airfare. The lieutenant governor said a lot of times, TAs come to him for concurrence so he does not necessarily look at the numbers. He said he has never seen a TA that says its first-class or business class or an economy class. Palacios said he basically look at the purpose and discern if it is for public purposes or in the best interest of the Commonwealth.

“I rely also on the people at Finance because they regulate how much per diem, how much tickets should be and they calculate. So generally, I would sign off,” he said.

Palacios said he has never traveled in business class.

In response to Rep. Christina E. Sablan’s (D-Saipan) question, Palacios said that had he known that Torres would have been traveling first class or business class, he would have pointed that concern out to the governor. In fact, Palacios said, he actually he raised that concern to Torres and Finance a couple of times and he was told that “it’s okay.”

He said it was probably Torres and the Finance staff who told him, “It’s okay.”

Palacios said he became aware that the governor was traveling first-class several years ago when he was a senator. “Whether he was traveling on public resources on first class, I wasn’t aware. I was probably thinking that he was able to upgrade himself. But I just never questioned him about it,” Palacios said.

It was early on in their tenure as governor and lieutenant governor that Palacios said he became aware that Torres was traveling first-class at government expense, so he raised the issue with him.

Repeating and rephrasing Palacios’ testimony, Babauta said the lieutenant governor testified that when he raised his concern to Torres about the latter’s first-class travel, it fell on deaf ears as the governor told him, “It was okay.” Palacios said he did raise the issue, but he can’t judge whether it fell on deaf ears.

Sablan later showed photos showing Torres attending the Torres-Palacios campaign rally in Oregon in April 2018 and a campaign rally in Guam in June 2018. Palacios said he did not attend the Oregon rally, but was present at the Guam rally. He said the NMI Republican Party paid for his Guam trip.

Sablan stated that the records they have reviewed also show that Torres took over 100 trips between 2015 and 2020, which cost the government at least half a million dollars in airfare, per diem, lodging, ground transportation, and boat transportation.

Sablan said that in many of these trips, Torres spent several weeks or days and that at least 40 of these government-funded trips were in first-class or business class, in violation of Commonwealth law.

Sablan said the governor often traveled with other government officials and personal security details, so the cost to the government for these trips were much greater.

Palacios agreed with Sablan that, based on his honest and professional opinion, the extent of these travels and the costs involved indeed “seems excessive.”

Sablan said the records they have reviewed show that Torres requested or approved government-funded travel for his wife on dozens of occasions. She said at least 31 of such trips between 2016 and 2019, including 14 first-class and business class trips, were with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres.

Sablan said the cost for these trips for the couple are staggering as one trip to Washington, D.C. cost more than $22,000 for airfare alone for the governor and his wife.

Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota) later asked Palacios about his thoughts on Torres claiming reimbursement for what appears to be personal items that were purchased, but never made part of the inventory for the governor’s office, among them expensive coolers, hunting gear, battery for a personal vehicle, chainsaw, wheelbarrow, and others. Palacios replied, “Amazing.”

Palacios’ answer drew laughs from NMI Democratic Party chair Nola Hix and other people from the gallery and some representatives.

Babauta later asked Palacios if, given his experience at the Legislature, he believes that there is enough reason to call for Torres’ resignation or his impeachment based on abuse of office and flagrant waste of precious government resources. Palacios said he wishes he could give a short answer to that, but that it’s not really his choice right now to say yes or no. He said he will leave that to the JGO members to discern what has to be done.

“Certainly you guys have many different options and alternatives and I will leave that to you all elected leaders of this body,” Palacios said.

In response to Babauta’s question about the Federal Bureau of Investigation raids on Torres’ office and house last Nov. 7, 2019, Palacios said his office was not part of the search.

Babauta said the FBI executed search and seizure warrants at the Office of the Governor, Torres’ home, vehicle, and the law firm of his family.

Palacios said it was a sad day for the Commonwealth as a government and as a community, that the FBI would come and search the office and affiliate offices of the government and even Torres’ private residence.

“It took me four hours to recover from that shock. That’s why it took me until 2 o’clock to come out to the media and speak to the public about the events that occurred that day,” he said.

Palacios said that day was an embarrassment for the Commonwealth and a very rude awakening to the people of the Commonwealth. “We are still dealing with that. Obviously, that dark cloud still lingers over the Commonwealth,” he said.

Palacios, however, stated that he hopes that things will work out for the governor and for this community. “I hope for the sake of the Commonwealth that we come to a closure on that particular issue. I hope that the governor will come out of this situation without any criminal charges,” he said.

Palacios said agrees with Babauta that, as a result of those FBI raids, there has been an erosion of public trust and erosion of ideals related to democracy.

Saipan Tribune will publish the rest of Palacios’ testimony tomorrow, Friday.

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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