By Troy Torres
(Tumon, Guam) While many Commonwealth residents wait for their overdue tax refund, Gov. Ralph and first lady Diann Torres took a spring 2018 vacation to Alaska, first class, on the public dime.
It is illegal, according to the laws of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, for public officials including the governor to travel first class or business class using taxpayer money.
§7407(f) of Division 7 of Title 1 of the CNMI Government Code specifically prohibits premium airfare purchases:
The Commonwealth Government shall not purchase or furnish for or reimburse to any employee, contractor, board member, or other person required to travel on behalf of the Government, its departments, divisions, agencies, and autonomous agencies, an airline ticket for travel in first class, business class, or any other premium class designation.
On April 12, and 13, 2018, in the midst of a Republican Party rally in Rota paid for with government funds, then-Lt. Gov. Victor Hocog approved two travel authorizations for Mr. and Ms. Torres to travel to Alaska and Oregon.
Mr. Hocog, in the first TA, approves $16,250 in airfare costs for the Torres couple via Century Travel. In the second TA, Mr. Hocog approves $700 in per diem allowance for the governor, and $1,146.28 in hotel stays for the governor and the first lady throughout their vacation.
A review of the couple's itinerary and their boarding passes reveals that aboard every single aircraft they took from Saipan to Guam, to Honolulu, to San Francisco, to Portland, to Anchorage, and then the same in reverse, Ralph and Diann Torres traveled first class on the airplanes that provided first class accommodations, and business class on the smaller airplanes.
The governor and the first lady took 11 plane rides for the entire trip, each availing of illegal business and first class accommodations. This means that in this one instance, they violated the law 22 times together. The penalty for violating the airfare restriction statute? $1,000 per violation:
Any government employee who causes an airline ticket to be issued in violation of this section shall pay a civil fine of one-thousand dollars. - §7407(f) of Division 7 of Title 1 of the CNMI Government Code
On this trip alone, the first couple is liable for $22,000 in fines. But they're not the only ones. The government official, who authorized the first and business class accommodations, also needs to pay the $1,000 fine for each airplane ride. That means Senate President Victor Hocog, who was the lieutenant governor and authorizing signatory of these TAs, needs to pay the CNMI treasury $22,000 for the 22 first and business class seats Mr. and Ms. Torres took.
The illegality of the luxury accommodations isn't the only matter under scrutiny with this particular travel authorization, though. In the governor's justification for the travel itself, he maintains that the purpose of the trip is "To meet with Gary Kuwabara on resilient sustainable island & other DOD matters and also meet Craig Campbell in Alaska regarding Alaska Aerospace MOA."
The CNMI has no memorandum of agreement with Alaska Aerospace. In March of 2018, prior to the Torres's vacation to Alaska and Oregon, Gov. Torres and Alaska Aerospace began talking about the possibility of a rocket launch pad station to be built in Tinian. According to Alaska Aerospace's 2018 annual report, two CNMI officials did meet with Alaska Aerospace in May, during the time of the governor's trip to Alaska; but not the governor or his wife.
The MOA never transpired.
As for the meeting with Mr. Kuwabara, Kandit is suspicious of this entry. We have reached out to Mr. Kuwabara, who is the head of the Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment and the man who determines grant funding levels for the Marianas through the military, to confirm whether he indeed met with the governor in Oregon or Alaska.
Mr. Kuwabara's office is in Sacramento, California. Mr. and Ms. Torres's itinerary and boarding passes show that the closest they traveled to Mr. Kuwabara's office was through the San Francisco International Airport, where they only spent a couple hours at a time transiting between flights.
Slide through the pictures below to review the entire travel record: