Budget deal cuts funding for two toll projects

Senate panel probes false letters drafted to try to win funding

bsiceloff@newsobserver.com June 20, 2012 

DOTMONEY04.NE.062012.CCS

Republican Senator Tom Apodaca, left, chair of the Senate Rules Committee asks Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer of the state Department of Transportation to explain what happened with altered letters, in Apodaca's hands, involving funding of some proposed DOT projects during a Rules committee meeting held at the N.C. Legislative Building on June 20, 2012.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

— The House and Senate agreed Wednesday not to spend $63 million next year on two toll road projects that are running behind schedule, and a Senate committee continued investigating a pair of false letters drafted last week in a failed effort to push legislators toward a different decision.

House members had included some of the funds for the Mid-Currituck Bridge on the northern Outer Banks and the Garden Parkway near Charlotte when they adopted their proposed budget in late May. But Jim Trogdon, a senior state Department of Transportation official, told legislators June 8 that DOT would not be ready to spend the money during the coming year.

When leaders from both chambers released their joint budget agreement, they said the toll road money would be deposited instead in the state’s Mobility Fund for use on other road and bridge improvements. Some Senate leaders want to kill the two toll projects permanently, but they acceded to House members and agreed that the funding cut would apply only for one year.

Meanwhile Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee opened two days of hearings into a pair of letters sent to legislators June 14 over Trogdon’s signature, arguing that DOT needed full funding for both projects in the 2013 budget. Trogdon disavowed the letters later that day, saying he had not been consulted and had not approved them.

Trogdon said that the altered letters were not correct and were the result of pressure from Gov. Bev Perdue’s office. The changes made to the letters – described by Perdue’s office as “edits” – reversed Trogdon’s written position on road funding to say money for two major toll road projects in the state was needed in the next budget.

Trogdon told the Senate panel that he had been out of town when Pryor Gibson, an adviser to the Democratic governor, went to Trogdon’s office to meet with a deputy DOT secretary last Thursday morning. It was 90 minutes before the state Senate was to discuss the budget.

“What occurred in my office was about between 9:30 and 10:30 – the draft edits arrived that were presented to the staff,” Trogdon said. “And they were presented as a factual statement reviewed by the governor’s staff and attorneys, and must be completed, and this letter must be sent by 10:45.”

Trogdon said Gibson wanted Trogdon’s signature on the letter instead of the deputy DOT secretary’s, and an assistant added Trogdon’s electronic signature.

When Trogdon learned about the changes by the governor’s staff, he immediately said they were not true and began taking steps to undo what had happened.

Trogdon said the deputy secretary who was involved, Susan Coward, had known Gibson for years and “trusted his statement and judgment” to her about making the changes over Trogdon’s name.

“In this case, that judgment was flat wrong,” Trogdon told reporters later. He said Coward had been put in “a very difficult position” with Gibson pressing her for quick action on the two letters.

Coward did not address the committee. DOT officials have declined to make her available for an interview.

Gibson, the governor’s aide, is expected to appear Thursday morning before the Senate Rules Committee. Governor’s office officials say there was no intent to deceive anyone but that Gibson thought the changes, while made in haste, would keep the money flowing and were in keeping with the DOT position.

The false letters were addressed to two legislators, Sen. Stan White of Dare County and Rep. William Current of Gaston County, who have personal and family business interests near the project paths. Both had asked for Perdue’s help in preserving funding.

Current told House members Wednesday that his advocacy for the Garden Parkway had not been influenced by a real estate investment he made in 2003 involving land near the path of the toll road.

“I want you to know your representative did not have any idea at any time of promoting his personal wealth on this project,” Current said.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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