A former North Dakota lawmaker accused of traveling to Prague with the intention of paying for sex with a minor used state funds to pay for at least three trips to that city and other destinations in Europe, according to a group that organized the trip.
Travel records from the North Dakota School Boards Association show former state Sen. Ray Holmberg used public funding for trips in 2011, 2018 and 2019 to Prague in the Czech Republic and to other cities, including Amsterdam and Berlin. The trips were organized through the German-based teacher exchange program Global Bridges, which received funding from the North Dakota Legislature.
The federal indictment was unsealed Mondayand also with receiving images depicting child sexual abuse. Holmberg, 79, pleaded not guilty.
It is unclear whether the alleged conduct occurred during the publicly funded trips. But the indictment says Holmberg traveled to Prague “on or about June 24, 2011 to about November 1, 2016 … for the purpose of engaging in any unlawful sexual conduct.” One of the records for the funded trips shows a departure date of June 24, 2011 to Prague and other cities.
The North Dakota Legislature gave money to the state Department of Public Instruction, which essentially transferred it to Global Bridges to pay for teacher and legislator travel.
State Rep. Bob Martinson said he chose the lawmakers who went on the trips, usually a mix of men and women, House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, for “a balanced group of people who are interested in learning and will all get along, so it won’t be a political trip.”
Holmberg “developed a really good relationship with Global Bridges and they liked him and wanted him to go to these meetings. They wanted him involved,” Martinson said.
His brother, former association executive director John Martinson, was project director and involved in selecting teachers for the trips. Holmberg traveled with teachers twice and also on independent trips where he was invited to participate, such as for a forum, annual meeting or symposium, John Martinson said. He said he did not know how many trips Holmberg had taken through the program.
The trips benefit lawmakers because of the knowledge they gain on topics such as energy and international relations, John Martinson said.
Bob and John Martinson said they did not know what Holmberg was charged with in Prague.
Holmberg declined to answer questions from The Associated Press.
“My lawyer tells me not to talk to anybody because I have this criminal thing, so I’m taking my lawyer’s advice,” Holmberg said Wednesday.
Bob Martinson called the allegations in the indictment “horribly sad.” Holmberg has been a friend for more than 40 years, he said.
The state-paid trip was first reported by KFGO and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.
A spokesman for Gov. Doug Burgum, Mike Nowatzki, said: “More generally, (Burgum) finds these types of allegations involving children disturbing and abhorrent and believes the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Longtime Democratic state Sen. Tim Mattern said he “has nothing against conferences and ways to educate our lawmakers about what’s going on in the world, but certainly there needs to be a lot more oversight.” The Legislature could do a “clean-up of our budgets,” provide accountability such as naming people “who promote certain things” and overhaul record-keeping, he said.
If Holmberg traveled with the state’s money to carry out the alleged conduct, “I would say that’s a misuse of dollars,” Mattern said. “I have no doubt that this was a misuse of tax dollars. The situation shows that “we as a system need to make some changes,” he said.
Holmberg served more than 45 years in the North Dakota Senate. He was an influential lawmaker, chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee, which wrote the budgets, and a senior legislative panel that dealt with legislative matters between sessions every two years. He has taken dozens of state-funded trips around the U.S. and abroad over the past decade, according to legislative travel filings.
Holmberg resigned last year after The Forum reported on dozens of text messages he exchanged with a man in prison at the time on charges related to images of child sexual abuse.
A state commission on Thursday voted unanimously to suspend Holmberg’s teaching license for life, intending to revoke it immediately if he pleads guilty or is convicted of any charge based on the underlying facts of the case, according to the motion in the meeting minutes.
Holmberg, who is retired, had a career in Grand Forks Public Schools from 1967 to 2002, including years as a teacher, child-finding coordinator and counselor.