By Troy Torres
The CNMI Office of the Public Auditor conducted its first travel audit in a decade. OPA examined travel documents throughout the Commonwealth government and found several violations of the law, including illegal first class travel.
Whether the OPA or Attorney General Edward Manibusan will enforce the audit's findings by prosecuting those who have violated the law remains to be seen. However, the legislature is expected to investigate the matter further.
Kandit News, in a series of articles and discussions, published scores of travel documents showing Gov. Ralph Torres and first lady Diann Torres traveled exclusively on first class and business class seats throughout his tenure as governor.
The audit also shows an exponential increase in government travel since the late Gov. Eloy Inos died and his successor, Mr. Torres took office. For Fiscal Year 2015, the Commonwealth government spent only $9 million on travel. By Fiscal Year 2018, that expense morphed by 152 percent to $17.2 million, with two-thirds of that amount spent from the agencies under the governor's direct control. Autonomous agencies's travel hardly increased during the four-year period the audit covers.
Public Auditor Michael Pai presented this information in the OPA's draft audit findings presented to the the legislature on June 23. The final audit awaits comments from the legislature, which will be included in the publication.
The audit used the six governing sections of the CNMI's government travel statute, which has evolved since April 22, 1986 through the passage of Public Law 5-9, and is codified at 1 CMC §7407 subsections (a) through (f).
Among the statutory restrictions on travel is subsection (f)'s prohibition on first class, business class, or any other premium class travel.
"[W]e found instances where purchases of first or business class airfare were made contrary to the statute prohibiting government-paid travel outside the Commonwealth," the audit states. "Despite the law clearly stating that travel in first or business class is prohibited, OPA received evidence indicating that first or business class tickets were purchased over the past four years."
The audit report shows the Department of Finance provided OPA with a series of memos an outdated policy guidelines to justify the authorization of, among other things, first class travel; and indication DOF rationalizes the illegal authorizations as a nuisance of bureaucratic error, rather than an inimical attack on the law.
The OPA recommends the DOF adopt travel regulations consistent with the law, and provide training and guidance on per diem calculations. The OPA also recommends the legislature review current travel laws and iron out any inconsistencies in the law.