Democrats protest Republican grilling of DOT employees over false letters

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJune 27, 2012 

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Vicki Stanley, executive assistant to Jim Trogdon, DOT'S chief operating officer, cries as she speaks in front of a Senate committee in Raleigh on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The committee heard from three witnesses before deciding Thursday whether to request a formal investigation into letters that distorted the state Department of Transportation’s stance on $63 million in state money for two toll road projects.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com

— After Republican senators grilled two state Department of Transportation employees and a member of Gov. Bev Perdue’s staff at a committee hearing Wednesday, Democrats protested that the DOT workers were being hounded unfairly for their involvement in a mistake.

Vicki Stanley, a DOT office manager, and Susan Coward, a DOT deputy secretary, were questioned for a combined 40 minutes about their actions on June 14, when they agreed to issue letters to two legislators over the signature of their boss, Jim Trogdon, the DOT’s chief operating officer.

“We have a one-sided cross examination of civil servants, these two ladies who showed up here this morning, … who were just doing their job in this entire process,” Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, said after the hearing.

Trogdon was out of town that day and had asked Coward to work with Pryor Gibson, a Perdue aide who testified before the rules committee last week, on what Gibson had said were “minor changes to the letters,” Stanley testified.

The letters misrepresented Trogdon’s position by asking legislators to include money for two toll-road projects in the 2013 budget. Trogdon had told legislative leaders a week earlier that the money was not needed. He quickly disavowed the June 14 letters and said they should not have been sent without his consent.

Both women apologized Wednesday, with Stanley pausing to wipe tears from her cheek, for approving the letters and issuing them with Trogdon’s electronic signature. They said they had not recognized that the revised letters, requested urgently that morning by Gibson, amounted to a reversal of Trogdon’s previous recommendation to the legislature.

Stanley said she felt deadline pressure, but she was not threatened or coerced.

“No, sir,” Stanley told Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson County Republican, who conducted the questioning. “I was just trying to be helpful and responsive. And as I said before, Jim had been in touch with Susan, and I trusted Susan.”

Kevin McLaughlin, Perdue’s deputy chief of staff, said he was the author of a sentence inserted into a letter Trogdon had drafted the day before. He said he thought he was “clarifying” the DOT budget position, not reversing it.

Trogdon had said DOT would not be ready to spend $63 million in budgeted state funds for the Mid-Currituck Bridge on the Outer Banks and the Garden Parkway near Charlotte in 2013 because DOT anticipates lawsuits that will delay both toll projects until 2014.

McLaughlin and Gibson added a sentence to say the money would be needed in 2013, in case the expected delays did not materialize.

“The governor thought these two projects were important,” McLaughlin told Newton. “And we wanted to make sure that if litigation did not occur or was resolved, the funding would be in place for the projects.”

That’s the change that Coward approved on June 14 in letters that Stanley prepared and issued, with a digital copy of Trogdon’s signature. Trogdon asserted later that the money would not be needed.

The rules committee is expected to decide Thursday whether to refer the issue to outside agencies for investigation of possible ethical or criminal violations.

Blue called the committee’s hearings a “witch hunt” and said Republicans had abused Stanley and Coward.

When such a hearing is held again, he said, the witnesses should have lawyers and other legal protections “so that they aren’t led down some kind of little alley to future criminal proceedings or other proceedings that adversely affect them in their jobs.”

Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a Buncombe County Democrat and the Senate minority leader, told Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Henderson County Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, that he would never tolerate such treatment for his own office assistant.

“That’s no different than you making a mistake and us calling (Apodaca assistant) Miss (Carolyn) Gooden down here and putting her up there and grilling her for 45 minutes over a mistake that was made in your office,” Nesbitt said. “It’s just unconscionable to pounce on somebody’s assistant who was just doing her job the best she could.”

Nesbitt said the false DOT letters were an outgrowth of the Republican-led Senate’s quick budget process.

“When you run a budget, you don’t have any subcommittees meet, you don’t have any input and you rush it out here, you’re going to have us, the governor’s staff and everybody else running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to catch up with you,” Nesbitt said. “That’s what happened here.”

Apodaca has called Trogdon blameless in the incident, and other Republicans have spoken favorably about DOT employees generally. In questions of witnesses Wednesday and at previous hearings, Republicans sought to discover whether aides to the Democratic governor had unfairly pressured DOT employees into putting Trogdon’s signature on the letter.

But in his reply to Blue and Nesbitt, Apodaca suggested that some of the blame lay with Trogdon’s executive assistant, Stanley. Gesturing to his own assistant, Gooden, seated at his side, Apodaca said:

“If Miss Gooden had done what that lady (Stanley) did, she wouldn’t be working for me. So let’s get that straight right now.”

When Nesbitt asked what Stanley had done, Apodaca replied:

“It’s pretty plain she signed a letter that wasn’t authorized to be signed by the person’s name she signed. I’m not a lawyer, I’m just a normal person, but that doesn’t work in my world.”

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