State funded some trips for ex-North Dakota senator charged with traveling to pay for sex with minor

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A former North Dakota legislator charged with traveling to Prague with the intent of paying for sex with a minor used state funds to pay for at least three trips to that city and to other destinations in Europe, according to a group that organized the travel.

Travel records from the North Dakota School Boards Association show that former state senator 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 arranged through the Germany-based Global Bridges teacher exchange program, which received funding from the North Dakota Legislature.

A federal indictment unsealed Monday charged Holmberg with traveling to Prague with the intent of paying for sex with a minor and also with receiving images depicting child sexual abuse. Holmberg, 79, has pleaded not guilty.

It’s unclear whether the alleged conduct happened during the publicly funded trips. But the indictment says Holmberg traveled to Prague “from on or about June 24, 2011, to on or about Nov. 1, 2016 ... for the purpose of engaging in any illicit sexual conduct." One of the travel records for the funded trips lists 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 passed it along to Global Bridges to pay for trips for teachers and legislators.

State Rep. Bob Martinson said he picked the legislators who went on the trips, usually a combination of men and women, House and Senate, Democratic and Republican for “a balanced group of people who were interested in learning and would all get along together so it would not be a political trip.”

Holmberg “established a really good rapport with Global Bridges, and they liked him, and they requested that he go to those meetings. They wanted him involved," Martinson said.

His brother, former Association Executive Director Jon Martinson, was the project director and participated in the selection of 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, said Jon Martinson. He said he didn't know how many trips Holmberg took through the program.

The trips are beneficial for legislators because of the knowledge they gain on topics such as energy and international relations, Jon Martinson said.

Bob and Jon Martinson said they didn't know of what Holmberg is accused of doing in Prague.

Holmberg declined to answer questions from The Associated Press.

“My lawyer tells me don't talk to anyone because I've got that criminal thing, so I'm following my attorney's advice,” Holmberg said Wednesday.

Bob Martinson called the allegations raised by the indictment “terribly sad." Holmberg has been a friend for over 40 years, he said.

The state-paid travel was first reported by KFGO and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

Gov. Doug Burgum's spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, said, "Speaking broadly, (Burgum) finds such allegations involving children disturbing and disgusting and believes perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Longtime Democratic state Sen. Tim Mathern said he has “no objection to conferences and ways to educate our legislators about what's going on in the world, but certainly the scrutiny needs to be much higher.” The Legislature could take “a fine-tooth comb going through our budgets,” provide accountability such as names of people “promoting certain things,” and revisit records retention, he said.

If Holmberg traveled on the state's dime to commit the alleged conduct, “I would say it was a misuse of dollars,” Mathern said. “I have no question that this was a misuse of tax dollars." The situation indicates “we as a system need to make some changes," he said.

Holmberg served over 45 years in the North Dakota Senate. He was a powerful lawmaker, chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee, which writes budgets, and a top legislative panel that handles legislative matters between biennial sessions. He took dozens of state-funded trips throughout the U.S. and abroad in the last decade, according to legislative travel records.

Holmberg resigned last year after The Forum reported on his dozens of text messages exchanged with a man in jail at the time on charges related to images of child sexual abuse.

A state panel on Thursday voted unanimously to suspend Holmberg’s lifetime teaching license, intending to revoke it immediately if he pleads guilty to or is convicted of any charge based on the case's underlying facts, according to the motion in meeting minutes.

Holmberg, who is retired, had a career with Grand Forks Public Schools from 1967 to 2002, including years as a teacher, child find coordinator and counselor.