Senate committee refers DOT letters case to Ethics Commission

Rules panel wants further inquiry into altered DOT memo

acurliss@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2012 

— The state Senate Rules Committee voted Thursday to ask the state Ethics Commission to review the results of an inquiry into altered Department of Transportation letters, saying the actions of several state employees deserve further scrutiny.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said the commission must review why lawmakers received letters this month that altered the position of a top DOT official on a roads funding issue.

The Ethics Commission probes ethical issues in state government and has the power to recommend various types of action, including dismissal, for such things as conflicts of interest or improper gift giving. But it is not clear what rules would apply to the letters matter.

Perry Newson, the ethics commission’s executive director, declined to comment.

Apodaca had previously called the letters “fraudulent” and suggested a district attorney may need to review what occurred. Other committee members have called the letters forgeries.

On Thursday, Apodaca softened that position, saying the letters were “fictitious” but that he did not believe there was any criminal intent in the changes.

He said he believes strongly that there are ethical violations. He said the committee’s referral will ask the Ethics Commission to focus on Pryor Gibson, the senior adviser to Gov. Bev Perdue; Susan Coward, a deputy DOT secretary; and Vicki Stanley, a DOT office manager.

Those three were involved in making changes to letters that had been drafted by DOT Chief Operating Officer Jim Trogdon as the Senate was considering the state budget this month. Trogdon was out of town and unreachable at the time the changes were made to say that state money was needed for two toll projects in the next 12 months. Trogdon had written otherwise in a previous letter.

Trogdon retracted the letters within hours of their delivery. The letters included a copy of his electronic signature.

All three employees have apologized and said they take responsibility for what happened. They have said they did not realize Trogdon would oppose the alterations that were made.

The decision on Thursday followed about 40 minutes of debate among rules committee members into whether the changes made to the letters were an innocent mistake or something more serious. Opinions varied.

Democrats on the committee were opposed to asking for an ethics review, saying all the employees involved had told the committee that there was no intention to do anything wrong.

“I don’t like what happened, but at this point I almost have to believe it’s sloppiness, people not paying attention to detail, more so than I think it’s some nefarious, malicious reason,” said Sen. Eric Mansfield, a Fayetteville Democrat.

Mansfield said he still has questions about how the letter reversed an earlier position but said he did not see a “smoking gun” that required the issue be elevated to an ethics complaint.

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican who represents Nash and Wilson counties and who led questioning of Stanley and Coward in a hearing on Wednesday, said he did not believe the two DOT aides did anything wrong.

He said they took responsibility that did not fall on them. Instead, he pointed to the actions of Gibson, who last week said that he asked for the changes under a tight deadline.

Newton said the two DOT employees “were used” by Gibson.

“I believe that is highly deserving of a referral to the Ethics Commission,” Newton said. “...If someone knowingly tries to pull a hoax on this institution, in a serious debate like that, that challenges all of us. ... And we should not tolerate it.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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