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Financial director: Larson and Atalig signed for me after OPA said first class travel is illegal

By Troy Torres

Bernadita Palacios, the government official responsible for certifying the availability of funds, told an official investigating body that she stopped certifying first class travel for Ralph and Diann Torres in 2019, after the public auditor informed her it was illegal.

"Who approved first class travel, then, after you stopped signing those authorizations?" CNMI Congressman Ed Propst (D-Saipan) asked Ms. Palacios, who is the director of financial services at the Department of Finance.

"The secretary of finance," Ms. Palacios replied.

"Which one?" House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations chairwoman Celina Roberto Babauta followed up.

"Larissa Larson and David Atalig," Ms. Palacios said.

Ms. Palacios was forthcoming to committee members, answering questions plainly and, except when her lawyer would interject privately with advice, without hesitation.

Committee members focused their questions on first class travel by the Torreses, which the law under the §7407(d) statute states is "unallowable," or illegal. Here are excerpts of questions from members, and her responses:

Q: Have you ever denied a travel authorization?
BP: No

Q: Did the government pay for the first or business class travel of Governor Ralph Torres and first lady Diann Torres?
BP: Yes

Q: Are all the governor's travel authorizations automatically approved?
BP: Yes

Q: To your knowledge, has any other elected official or government employee flown first class on public funds?
BP: No

Q: Has any other spouse of an employee or elected official aside from first lady Diann Torres ever flown first class on public funds?
BP: No

Q: When the public auditor met with you to inform you that first class travel was illegal, did you then bring it up to Secretary Larson?
BP: I did bring that up to Secretary Larson about it.
Q: What did she say?
BP: She said she's gonna look into it.
Q: After you brought it up, that's when she began to sign for you?
BP: Yes
Q: And after Larissa Larson it was David Atalig who was signing for you?
BP: Yes

The next set of questions revolve around a trip the Torreses took, which included Rota, during the same time Mr. Torres held a campaign rally on the island:

Q: Does the first lady get a stipend or per diem when traveling with the governor?
BP: Usually we don't give per diem to the first lady.
Q: Ever come across a TA, where Diann Torres got per diem?
BP: No
Q: Is the first lady, when traveling with the governor, entitled to a separate hotel room in addition to the hotel room for the governor?
BP: No; I don't think so.
Q: Would the Department of Finance pay additional if the governor has his own room?
BP: I don't know about that. I've never seen one.

The questions stem from travel documents in 2018, which show the Torreses each were paid lodging for separate rooms at a resort in Rota.

This is a developing story.

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