Senate will probe ‘fraudulent’ DOT letters

Senate rules committee wants to hear from DOT officials and Perdue officials

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 office, under fire over the disclosure that top aides altered a state transportation official’s position on funding for toll road projects without his knowledge, said Tuesday that her staffers had only “suggested some edits” to paperwork while seeking to ensure the projects stayed on track.

Perdue, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election, did not comment on the issue. Her press secretary issued a statement.

Republicans called what happened something much different: a possible crime that merits serious review.

The Senate Rules Committee chairman launched an inquiry, using the word “fraudulent” to describe the letters sent to lawmakers last week that appeared to reverse the state Department of Transportation’s position on whether the legislature should provide $63 million next year for two toll roads.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said DOT officials will be asked to speak at a committee hearing Wednesday morning, and representatives of Perdue’s office would be asked to speak at a second hearing Thursday morning.

The Republican candidate for governor, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, issued a statement that said the disclosure in The News & Observer of what happened was an apparent “blatant manipulation of data and facts to mislead” by Perdue’s office.

McCrory called for Perdue to ask the State Bureau of Investigation to review the matter.

Apodaca, in comments to reporters, said his committee could refer the issue to a district attorney depending on how the hearings go.

Change of message

The hearings will focus on a pair of letters rushed to the legislature last Thursday morning with the signature of Jim Trogdon, the DOT chief operating officer. Trogdon drafted portions of the letters at the request of Perdue staffers, but he later retracted what had been delivered because they contained revisions – added by Perdue staffers – that Trogdon said he had not authorized.

His electronic signature had been added to the documents without his knowledge, he wrote in a follow-up letter to lawmakers.

Trogdon had already told legislators in a June 8 memo that DOT would not be ready before fiscal year 2014 to spend funds for the planned Mid-Currituck Bridge in Currituck County and the Garden Parkway in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties.

He wrote that the legislature’s budget for 2013, now under negotiation, didn’t need money for those projects. The House has included the road funding in its budget, while the Senate has not.

The DOT position was then contradicted in the letters sent over Trogdon’s signature Thursday morning to two legislators interested in the toll projects. One has invested in land near the parkway, then sold it to his son. Another owns vacation homes on the Outer Banks.

Trogdon was out of town and unreachable when the changes were made. Perdue staffers Pryor Gibson and Kevin McLaughlin had worked to insert a line in the new letter that said the toll project “funds are needed in this budget cycle.”

By the time Trogdon learned what happened and disavowed the letters Thursday afternoon, one had been cited in Senate floor debate over an unsuccessful amendment to restore the toll road funding to the budget.

“Those simple facts in my mind warrant this committee’s inquiry into the integrity of information provided to the Senate as it goes about its business,” said Apodaca, the rules chairman. “This is simply an inquiry. We will go where the facts lead us.”

Apodaca said the facts already make clear that the blame does not lie within DOT. He went out of his way to praise Trogdon, who is also a major general in the N.C. National Guard.

‘Failure to communicate’

Apodaca said he planned a “thorough inquiry” to determine “what transpired with the fraudulent letter that was presented to us.”

Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey said Republicans are hyping the issue.

“Republicans are using inflammatory language – which tries to make a mountain out of a molehill – because they’re hoping it will distract attention from the final budget they’re about to release...” she said.

Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat and Senate minority leader, said it was premature to call the letters “fraudulent.”

“Apparently somebody over there authorized that signature, and that happens all the time in my office and everybody else’s office when you’re not available,” Nesbitt said. “I haven’t seen anything to make me believe they were fraudulent. I think there was a failure to communicate. God forbid that would happen in Raleigh.”

Trogdon said in an interview Monday that his office occasionally uses a digital copy of his signature on routine communications when he is not available to review them. He said his signature should not have been used on the toll road letters when he was out of town last week, and he had taken steps to make sure it would not happen again on letters of such importance.

Trogdon said again Tuesday that he believes the changes were not made in bad faith, but were done in haste and confusion. Trogdon said the governor’s staffers and his own aides who were involved in assisting with the changes did so thinking that he would have approved them.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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