A review of travel records showed that Republican Ray Holmberg, the longest-serving senator in the legislature, took taxpayer-funded trips to forty US cities, China, Canada and several countries in Europe. He was compensated about $126,000 for 70 trips — all out of state — from 2013 through mid-April of 2022.
The 229 lawmakers who served during that time took in more than $2 million in travel, or about $8,700 per legislator—making Holmberg’s total several times higher than the average as he went everywhere from Norway to New Orleans and Portland, Oregon, to Puerto Rico.
Holmberg declined to speak to the Associated Press, and referred questions to his attorney, Mark Freese.
“I’m his attorney, not his travel agent,” said Freeze, a prominent North Dakota defense attorney. “His ability to travel is a matter” for the legislature, Frieset said.
Holmberg announced this month that he would end his 46-year career in June after a report that he had exchanged dozens of text messages with a man imprisoned on child pornography charges.
Police and federal agents seized DVDs and other items from the Holmberg Grand Forks house in November. A police report did not give a reason for issuing a search warrant. It came about three months after Holmberg exchanged 72 text messages with Nicholas James Morgan-Derosier while Morgan Derosier was being held at the Grand Forks County Jail.
There was no indication that Holmberg’s travel was part of any investigation.
The 79-year-old has been the oldest traveler in the legislature for at least the last decade – a period in which he held a position that allowed him to approve his travels. His travel records paid by the state during the previous three decades of his tenure are incomplete or no longer exist.
Rich Wardner, Republican Senate Majority Leader, said the retired school counselor’s trips were legal and justified given his tenure and presidency. But Wardner said he was surprised by the extent of the travel.
“I know he’s gone on a lot of trips but I haven’t tracked him down,” Wardner said.
His House counterpart, Representative Chet Bollert, declined to comment on the appropriateness of travel: “This was his decision to travel and it is up to him to decide whether it was right or wrong.”
Dustin Jaurelow, director of the North Dakota Monitoring Network, said spending on lawmakers to attend some conferences is justified. But he described Holmberg’s travel as excessive.
“There was clearly a lack of checks and balances in the process,” he said. I think it certainly illustrates the need for more transparency and oversight. No one, no matter their location, should be in a position to agree to things that benefit them.”
Holmberg travel costs include hotel bills, meals, plane or car fare, and daily payments that North Dakota lawmakers receive when traveling on a government mission. Lawmakers may also keep airline miles earned from state-funded travel.
Lawmakers get $189 per day if they attend meetings while traveling. Holmberg’s travel expenses in the past decade include just under $47,000 per day. In other words, Holmberg’s daily compensation reflects that he has traveled out of North Dakota at public expense for more than eight months in the past decade.
Many of Holmberg’s trips were at meetings organized by the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures, national groups representing state legislators. He has been involved with the group in part through his work on redistricting committees since 1981.
Holmberg has for years chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which along with its House counterpart controls government spending, including lawmakers’ travel budgets. For most of the past decade, he has also served as chair of a powerful committee, the Legislative Department, which oversees the work of the legislature between sessions. In the latter position, Holmberg alone was empowered to approve travel for lawmakers, including his own under the rules governing the legislature.
Bollert has served as head of the legislative department for two years in the past decade, and now heads the committee again after Holmberg’s resignation. During that time, he said, he approved one trip for himself – a gathering of legislative leaders from around the country who met in Puerto Rico.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the North Dakota Taxpayers Association has changed its name to the North Dakota Watch Network.