Try civility in the Tata-Conti transportation tiff

July 10, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Tony Tata as the state’s secretary of transportation in January knowing he had no experience in public road building or transit. Nonetheless, the governor was confident that Tata’s former career as a U.S. Army brigadier general, including service in Afghanistan, had prepared him to run one of the state’s largest departments.

“If he can do it in Afghanistan under fire, surely he can do it here,” McCrory said.

Perhaps Tata took that connection too much to heart. In bureaucratic terms, he’s firing away at his predecessors at DOT. Last month, Tata issued a news release blaming Paul Morris, the former DOT deputy secretary for transit, for prematurely promising $15.1 million for a new Raleigh railroad station. Morris said the deal was set between the state and the Federal Railroad Administration at the time of the announcement.

Gene Conti, Tata’s predecessor as DOT secretary, fired back at the former general, saying, “That press release is extremely unprofessional and inaccurate, and the only one who’s injecting politics into this discussion is Tony Tata.”

Now it surfaces that there was even more tension between Tata and Conti. In March, Tata wrote a warning letter to Conti after hearing “rumors” that his predecessor was misusing DOT logos and data as part of his consulting work with his new company, The Conti Group. The claims appear to be unfounded. The material involved is public record available for use by Conti or anyone else.

Conti’s lawyer, Michael Weisel, responded to Tata in a letter dated April 17.

“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.”

Tata is no longer in Afghanistan and he’s no longer a general, but he retains a combative style of management. It didn’t serve him well in his previous learning-on-the-job post as superintendent of the Wake County public school system, getting fired after 19 months. And it’s not serving the public well at DOT.

Instead of sending out news releases and letters aimed at Conti, Tata should be calling him in for peace talks. Conti, a veteran of both the state and federal transportation departments, could teach him about transportation and how to conduct oneself as a civilian leader – especially the civil part.

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