Stern letters exchanged between current, previous NCDOT chiefs

bsiceloff@newsobserver.com pgannon@ncinsider.comJuly 9, 2013 

Tony_Tata_01

Tony Tata, Secretary of Transportation

— State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata wrote a stern warning letter to his predecessor, Gene Conti, in March after hearing “rumors” that Conti might have misused state Department of Transportation logos and data, a spokesman said Tuesday.

In a March 18 letter, Tata said Conti is “not authorized to use Departmental trademarks, logos or images for any purpose” when he speaks in public, or to give any appearance that he still represents DOT. He asked Conti “to abstain from using data or information” gleaned from DOT during his four years as its secretary, unless it is public information.

Conti said he did nothing improper. Tata spokesman Mike Charbonneau said he could not provide evidence that Conti misrepresented himself or misappropriated DOT images and information. Tata sought the advice of DOT’s legal counsel after hearing informal reports through DOT employees, he said.

“It came in as a casual report of, ‘Hey, we understand the former secretary might be doing this,’” Charbonneau said. “The advice from legal counsel was that a former secretary is not allowed to use materials or represent himself in that way, so if you’re hearing rumors that he might be, it’s best for you to draft a letter saying ‘If you’re doing this, please don’t do it any more.’”

Conti stepped down in January and now works in a consulting business, The Conti Group, headed by his wife, Betsy. Both Conti and Tata participated in a multi-state conference on toll-road issues in Tallahassee, Fla., on Feb. 25. Conti made a presentation at a March 14 economic development conference in Greenville.

His attorney, Michael Weisel, responded to Tata in a sharply worded letter dated April 17. He said Conti made clear at both events that he was a private consultant, and his presentation used DOT materials that are freely available under public records laws.

“Your letter accuses Mr. Conti with unsubstantiated innuendoes of violating legally unsustainable positions, thereby casting aspersions on his character and integrity,” Weisel wrote. “Continued or additional allegations in public or private by you concerning Mr. Conti in these matters will not be taken lightly.”

Gus Tulloss of Rocky Mount, who has worked previously with Conti and now with Tata as a member of the state Board of Transportation, said he saw nothing amiss in Conti’s presentation at the Greenville conference.

“I certainly don’t remember anything I thought was inappropriate or out of place,” Tulloss said. “I don’t recall anything that rang any kind of alarm bell.”

Conti said the DOT material he discussed in Greenville had been presented publicly to the legislature and at meetings around the state.

“I changed some wording on the slides because I didn’t want to give any impression that I was speaking for anybody other than myself,” Conti said.

He said he was “kind of stunned” by Tata’s criticism.

“I’m not sure why he chose to write that letter,” Conti said. “But I thought it was ethically important for me, professionally, to engage an attorney to respond.”

The two men appear to have put the issue behind them. Charbonneau said there have been no further exchanges. Conti said he found himself on the same flight with Tata when both men traveled to a Rhode Island conference in May.

“I talked to the secretary briefly,” Conti said. “We just exchanged pleasantries.”

Patrick Gannon reports for NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.

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

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service