Pryor Gibson apologizes for changes to DOT letter on toll projects

Gibson’s remarks show private politicking on toll

acurliss@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2012 

An adviser to Gov. Bev Perdue apologized Thursday for causing the state transportation department to send false letters to lawmakers last week. He called it a mistake and said he wished he had been more careful.

Pryor Gibson, Perdue’s senior adviser and her chief lobbyist in the legislature, also provided a glimpse into the sometimes messy budget writing and deal-making process while addressing a Senate committee conducting an inquiry. His testimony, along with other interviews Thursday, added a more complete picture of what transpired over the past week on a relatively small, but intensely fought, part of the state budget dealing with toll road projects near Charlotte and at the Outer Banks.

Gibson, a former lawmaker, was animated while discussing the letters, which were sent under the name of a top DOT official, chief operating officer Jim Trogdon, without his consent while he was out of town and unreachable. When Trogdon learned of the letters, he retracted them and expressed concern.

The letters were rushed to lawmakers June 14 as the budget was under discussion. They said as much as $63 million in state money would be needed in the next 12 months for two toll projects: the Garden Parkway near Gastonia and a bridge to the northern Outer Banks known as the Mid-Currituck Bridge.

It wasn’t true, according to Trogdon. He has said he would never have taken that position.

According to documents and interviews, Gibson and a Perdue deputy chief of staff had come up with the changed wording, adding the language to a letter Trogdon had already drafted for lawmakers.

In several exchanges with senators Thursday, Gibson was contrite in discussing what took place.

Asked if he regretted what he had done, Gibson responded: “I think regret would be a soft word.”

Gibson has said through a spokesman, and repeated on Thursday, that he incorrectly thought that Trogdon would agree with the changes. He said he thought he was adding language to Trogdon’s position so that if threatened lawsuits weren’t filed, money could be available for the toll projects. Perdue, a Democrat, supports the projects.

The Senate committee is scheduled to meet again Tuesday and decide on any other possible action.

Keeping Owens happy

Documents and interviews show that the letters were just a piece of a behind-the-scenes fight that had erupted over funding for the toll projects.

That’s because money to start both toll projects was in the House version of the budget.

But early last week, Senate budget writers did not go along, crafting a spending plan to limit the toll project funding in such a way that supporters of the projects viewed it as effectively killing them.

This was a huge concern in the House, where Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, has been gathering bipartisan and veto-proof support for the budget by working with a handful of Democrats.

One of them is Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat from Elizabeth City who has provided crucial support to Tillis. Owens said in an interview the Senate budget was “alarming” in that it would clearly halt the bridge project he and others have worked on “for half a lifetime.”

‘Like a chess game’

Gibson told the Senate committee that he first heard from someone early last week, likely Monday evening, about the threat to the toll projects, though he couldn’t recall exactly who it was. He mentioned both Owens and Tillis’ chief of staff, Chris Hayes, as possibilities.

Gibson said what the Senate was doing had caused some lawmakers “heartburn.”

Owens said in an interview he made a series of phone calls and had discussions with others who could affect the outcome. He mentioned Perdue and state DOT Secretary Gene Conti at least twice, but declined to say who he spoke with.

“It was like a chess game,” Owens said. “They were making moves with their pieces. And you have to make another move to block. Everyone was doing what they thought was right, of course.”

Hayes, who was working closely with Tillis on the budget, said Owens had been vocal about what was taking place.

Complaints from legislators

The next day, Gibson heard from at least two lawmakers who could benefit from the toll projects: Rep. William Current Sr., a Republican from Gastonia who has had an interest in land near the parkway, and Sen. Stan White, a Democrat from Dare County who owns a business that builds homes and rents vacation homes on the northern Outer Banks.

Both say they are representing their constituents, not their personal interests, in advocating for the toll projects.

Gibson said the legislators were “complaining” to him and were seeking help from Perdue to ensure money flowed for both projects.

Gibson then spoke with Trogdon. Trogdon drafted a letter that essentially repeated his position from an earlier letter to lawmakers that said money wasn’t needed for the projects in the next 12 months. Gibson didn’t think it would answer lawmakers’ concerns, and that is why he caused the changes to be made, he said.

“I was trying to solve one problem, or one issue, for a couple of legislators and I created another one...,” he said.

White, a first-term lawmaker who represents a large swath of northeastern North Carolina, said in an interview he had tried to reach Owens to join forces on the issue but they never connected. White said the letter changed at Gibson’s direction played no role in his position on the issue.

In the end, with Trogdon retracting the altered letters and reiterating that no money is needed in the next 12 months, the House and Senate left out substantial funding for the projects in the next year.

Owens said he has been assured that funding for the projects is in place for future budgets. “The speaker has been good to his word to me and he fought to keep the bridge alive,” Owens said.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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