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Resigning North Dakota senator dragged lawmakers into travel expenses

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BISMARCK, ND (AP) — A North Dakota state senator who is resigning following a report that text messages he exchanged with an inmate increased travel spending over the past decade that’s more than 14 times what legislators charge state taxpayers on average, according to a review by The Associated Press.

Republican Ray Holmberg, the longest-serving senator in the Legislative Assembly, has made taxpayer-funded trips to four dozen U.S. cities, China, Canada and several countries in Europe, the review of records showed of travel by the AP. He was reimbursed about $126,000 for nearly 70 trips — all out of state — from 2013 to mid-April 2022.

The 229 legislators who served during this period accounted for more than $2 million in travel, or about $8,700 per legislator, putting Holmberg’s total several times above average as he traveled everywhere from Norway to New Orleans and from Portland, Oregon to Puerto Rico.

Holmberg declined to speak to AP, referring questions to his attorney, Mark Friese.

“I’m his attorney, not his travel agent,” said Friese, a prominent North Dakota defense attorney. “The convenience of his trip is a question” for the Legislative Assembly, Friese said.

Holmberg announced this month that he would end his 46-year career in June following a report that he exchanged dozens of text messages with a man jailed for child pornography.

Police and federal agents seized video discs and other items from Holmberg’s home in Grand Forks in November. A police report gave no reason for the issuance of a search warrant. It happened about three months after Holmberg exchanged 72 text messages with Nicholas James Morgan-Derosier while Morgan-Derosier was being held in Grand Forks County Jail.

There is no indication that Holmberg’s trip is part of an investigation.

The 79-year-old was the Legislative Assembly’s biggest traveler for at least the past decade – a time when he held a position that allowed him to approve his own travel. Records of his state-reimbursed trips over the past three decades in office are incomplete or no longer exist.

The retired school counselor’s trips were both legal and justifiable given his tenure and presidencies, GOP Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said. But Wardner said he was surprised at the extent of the travel.

“I know he traveled a lot, but I didn’t keep track of him,” Wardner said.

His House counterpart, Rep. Chet Pollert, declined to comment on the appropriateness of the trip: “It was his decision to travel and whether it was right or wrong is up to him.”

Dustin Gawrylow, director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network, said the expense for lawmakers to attend certain conferences is justified. But he called Holmberg’s travels excessive.

“Obviously there was an absence of checks and balances in the process,” he said. “I think it certainly illustrates the need for more transparency and control. No one, regardless of position, should be able to approve of things that benefit them.

Holmberg’s travel expenses include hotel bills, meals, plane or car tickets, and daily payments that North Dakota lawmakers receive when traveling on business. Lawmakers can also keep airline miles earned from publicly funded travel.

Legislators receive $189 per diem if they attend meetings while traveling. Holmberg’s travel expenses over the past decade include just under $47,000 in per diems. In other words, Holmberg’s daily reimbursements reflect that he has traveled outside of North Dakota at public expense for more than eight months over the past decade.

Many of Holmberg’s trips were to meetings hosted by the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures, which are national groups that represent state legislators. He has been involved with the group in part through his work on the redistricting committees since 1981.

Holmberg for years chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which, along with its House counterpart, oversees state spending, including legislators’ travel budgets. For most of the past decade, he has also headed a powerful group, Legislative Management, which oversees the activities of the Legislative Assembly between sessions. In the latter role, Holmberg was solely authorized to approve lawmakers’ trips, including his own under the rules governing the legislature.

Pollert served as chairman of legislative management for two years over the past decade and is leading the committee again with Holmberg’s resignation. He said during that time he approved a trip for himself — a gathering of legislative leaders from around the country who met in Puerto Rico.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the North Dakota Taxpayers Association has changed its name to the North Dakota Watchdog Network.

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