Signed, Jim Trogdon

A top DOT official’s views were misstated by the governor’s office to advance two big projects.

June 21, 2012 

Highways and bridges mean big money – for the companies that build them, for the landowners who benefit from them, for the taxpayers who pay for them. No wonder the wheeling and dealing becomes so intense.

Consider the maneuvering by Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office to speed up funding for two big-ticket projects.

Perdue’s aides sent letters over the name of DOT’s chief operating officer, Jim Trogdon, without his approval and in the process completely misrepresented his view on a key point. That has opened the Democratic Perdue administration to attack by legislative Republicans who complain that the governor’s office was being deceptive.

A central figure in the fiasco was a Democrat – former Rep. Pryor Gibson of Wadesboro, now working as a top adviser to Perdue on legislative matters.

As reported by The N&O’s J. Andrew Curliss and Bruce Siceloff, after the Senate’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 failed to include start-up funding for the Garden Parkway toll road west of Charlotte, Republican Rep. William Current Sr. of Gastonia put out a distress call to Gibson, with whom he’d served in the House.

Meanwhile, with the Senate budget also omitting start-up money for the Mid-Currituck Bridge serving the northern Outer Banks, Democratic Sen. Stan White of Dare County wrote to Perdue seeking support.

It happens that Current once was an investor in land near some proposed parkway exits. He said in 2008 he’d sold that stake to his son – meaning a family member would stand to benefit from the project. White, in the vacation housing rental business, likely would be among many beneficiaries of better mainland access provided by the new $660 million toll bridge.

Helping hands

Gibson went to Trogdon, asking him to respond to the legislators. The problem: Trogdon didn’t think funding for the projects should be included in the upcoming budget. His draft letters said he anticipated a timetable by which the money wouldn’t be needed until the following fiscal year.

That apparently wasn’t telling the governor’s office what it wanted to hear. So without informing Trogdon, who was in Charlotte on business as a major general in the National Guard, his wording was changed to make it seem as if he agreed that DOT wanted the funds in the very next budget cycle. A deputy DOT secretary, Susan Coward, gave her OK to the changes, and Gibson delivered the letters, signed electronically with Trogdon’s name.

Perdue is entitled to call the shots on executive branch policy. But for her staff to make it appear as if Trogdon was asking for the money when his real view was that it wasn’t needed was a big mistake.

Trogdon understandably objected, publicly disavowing the letters. Now it should be Perdue herself who apologizes, to legislators and to Trogdon. She needs to erase any impression that she will tolerate deception by her staff.

Lure of the new

As to legislators advocating transportation projects from which they or family members could benefit financially, the standard has been fairly loose. If there is a larger public interest or benefit – as Current maintains with respect to the Garden Parkway and White doubtless would argue with respect to the bridge – then legislators have been judged to be within ethical bounds even if they have a more personal stake. Still, it leaves a sour taste when costly projects have as their champions people who can’t be said to have an objective view of their merits.

Trogdon was only being prudent in saying that instead of setting aside $63 million for the parkway and bridge in the coming budget year, it would be better to use the money on projects that will be ready to go, including repairs and maintenance.

But it’s new pavement and new structures that get the power-brokers’ juices flowing. Perdue, who has emphasized taking the politics out of road decisions, ought to make sure that everybody working for her has gotten the memo.

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