Altered letters from Perdue staff push money for toll projects that DOT says aren't ready

Changes push for money for toll projects DOT says aren’t ready

acurliss@newsobserver.comJune 19, 2012 

  • Toll projects at issue Garden Parkway The $1 billion Garden Parkway is a proposed 22-mile toll road from Interstate 85 west of Gastonia in Gaston County to I-485 near the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Mecklenburg County. Mid-Currituck Bridge The $660 million Mid-Currituck Bridge is planned as a seven-mile toll bridge across Currituck Sound in Currituck County. Developed by the state in partnership with private investors, it is intended to give vacationers a quicker drive to the Currituck Banks.

— Gov. Bev Perdue’s staff drafted a pair of false letters last week in an effort to start the flow of money for two major toll road projects that transportation officials say won’t be ready for state funding until 2014, according to documents obtained by The News & Observer.

The documents indicate that Perdue herself was involved in the issue, which concerns a budget debate over $63 million in start-up money for the Garden Parkway, a highway project near Charlotte, and a planned bridge to the northern Outer Banks known as the Mid-Currituck Bridge.

The letters were rushed to legislators Thursday morning over the signature of Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer of the state Department of Transportation. Trogdon disavowed the letters and retracted them Thursday afternoon.

“Funds are needed in this budget cycle” for the bridge and the parkway, according to a key line in both erroneous letters. That sentence had been inserted into letters Trogdon drafted with the intent to send the opposite message – that DOT didn’t need the money.

Two high-level Perdue staff members had added the new language, according to officials from DOT and Perdue’s office.

When Trogdon learned about the new language from his secretary Thursday, he sent a message to her from his mobile phone.

“Major problem with the sentence,” he wrote. “It is not true.”

Perdue, a Democrat, was not available for an interview Monday, according to her spokesman, Mark Johnson.

He said Perdue fully supports the toll projects and that the governor wants funding in place for them.

The false letters were distributed just as the Senate began its budget debate Thursday. The House had proposed to set aside money for both toll projects in 2013, but the Senate budget shifted the money to other road and bridge needs. The two chambers are negotiating over differences in their budgets, and the toll-road money is still part of their talks.

By pushing for funds in 2013, the false letters appeared to reverse a position Trogdon had spelled out in a memo June 8 to House and Senate budget writers. He said DOT expects to face lawsuits that will delay construction on the Garden Parkway and Mid-Currituck Bridge, so the state money won’t be needed until 2014.

‘Without my review or consent’

In an interview Monday, Trogdon said his position was unchanged. He endorsed a Senate budget proposal to spend that $63 million on projects that will be ready to move forward next year.

“Based on all the foreseeable things we believe will occur, I do not see any way we will be able to expend any (start-up) funds on those two projects before” fiscal year 2014, which starts in July 2013, Trogdon said.

Trogdon had been out of town when the false letters were drafted Thursday morning on DOT stationery, with his signature. He serves as a major general in the N.C. National Guard and was in Charlotte for security meetings related to the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

When he returned to Raleigh that afternoon, he took steps to cancel the letters. He said in a follow-up letter to tell lawmakers that he had not authorized his signature on the twin letters. He said they had been sent to legislators “without my review or consent.”

“I respectfully request that the letters be disregarded,” Trogdon wrote Thursday afternoon.

Lawmakers’ interests

It all started when the Senate budget was released early last week without start-up money for the toll projects. That concerned some lawmakers – including one who has owned land near where the Garden Parkway will go, and another who rents homes to vacationers on the Outer Banks.

Rep. William Current Sr., a Republican from Gastonia, sent an email to Perdue aide Pryor Gibson on June 12 saying that the lack of funding “would probably kill the project.”

Gibson, a former lawmaker, is the senior adviser on legislative matters to the governor, who is not seeking re-election.

Records show that Current has had a financial interest in the road, too. He was an investor in land owned by former legislator Robert Pittenger, who is now in a Republican primary runoff for the 9th Congressional District. Pittenger has a stake in roughly 2,000 acres near four proposed parkway exits.

Current, who has lobbied to keep the parkway moving forward for years, said in 2008 that he had sold his interest in the Pittenger/Parkway land to his son. Current was at a funeral Monday and could not be reached for comment. He issued a statement saying the Garden Parkway “promises major economic development potential for all of North Carolina.”

Sen. Stan White, a Dare County Democrat, wrote to Perdue on June 12 about the bridge. White, a former transportation board member, is a real estate and construction businessman who replaced former Senate leader Marc Basnight after his retirement in early 2011.

White owns a business that rents dozens of vacation homes on the Outer Banks. In the past two decades, his business has expanded to the northern sections of the Outer Banks, which would benefit from the new bridge.

The loss of money for the bridge “will probably be the demise of this project,” White wrote. Two days later, in Senate floor debate, White cited one of the false letters to bolster his proposed budget amendment to restore the Currituck bridge funds. The amendment was defeated.

Gibson asked Trogdon to help the governor draft responses to White and Current. He left a message saying Perdue wanted to discuss the issue with Trogdon.

“The Governor is traveling but on her next stop they want to connect you with her to discuss attached issues,” said Gibson’s phone message to Trogdon, according to a note by Trogdon’s secretary.

Trogdon says he spoke to Gibson but not to Perdue, and agreed to draft replies to White and Current.

In his proposed replies to the two legislators, Trogdon referred to his June 8 memo that had explained DOT’s decision not to seek money for the toll projects in 2013. Trogdon’s assistant emailed the replies to Gibson on Wednesday and said, “Jim asked that you please review the attached letters and let us know if the language is acceptable to the Governor.”

Making the alterations

The governor’s office did not accept Trogdon’s letters. Kevin McLaughlin, a deputy chief of staff to Perdue, drafted a sentence to add to each letter after discussing the issue with Gibson, according to Johnson, the governor’s spokesman. Gibson took the letters to DOT offices for Trogdon’s signature Thursday morning, when Trogdon was in Charlotte, according to an email to Trogdon from his assistant.

Susan Coward, a DOT deputy secretary, approved the changes, and Trogdon’s signature was applied electronically. Gibson personally distributed the letters to legislators that morning, according to the email message and Perdue’s spokesman.

Gibson declined Monday to comment on the issue.

Johnson said nothing nefarious was meant by the changes.

Gibson believed that Trogdon was aware of the alterations to his position at the time they were made, Johnson said.

He said Gibson, a former seatmate with Current when the two were in the legislature, was not aware of any financial interests in the toll projects by either concerned lawmaker.

Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gaston County Republican who helped write the Senate transportation budget, said the toll project money would be better spent on improving North Carolina’s existing roads and bridges.

“The philosophy of the transportation budget is to take care of what you have and finish what you started,” Harrington said. “I have not been a supporter of the Garden Parkway project.”

Senate panel to inquire

Trogdon said Monday that the revisions added by the governor’s office amounted to wishful thinking and a desire to reassure legislators.

“I think they were really trying to wordsmith some things to make everyone satisfied,” Trogdon said. “I understand they had a real deadline, to address those two members’ concerns, and they were pushing to have a letter drafted by 11 o’clock,” when the Senate began its budget debate.

“In the afternoon I called (Gibson) and told him I was going to retract that letter, and they were supportive of me doing so,” he said.

Trogdon said the governor’s staff had based its logic on the hope that one or both of the toll projects could avoid lawsuit-related delays. He said neither Coward nor anyone else in his office had realized that the edited letters misrepresented Trogdon’s point of view.

After Trogdon disavowed the letters Thursday afternoon, Coward said she had been at fault for accepting the revisions offered by the governor’s staff.

“I take full responsibility in trusting the edit as presented,” she wrote to Trogdon, to his assistant and to DOT’s lobbyist, “and apologize to everyone.”

Late Monday, the Senate Rules Committee scheduled a meeting for Tuesday to begin an inquiry into the matter.

Steve Harrison of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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