Senate Rules spent a tension-filled hour Wednesday cross-examining three officials in the DOT letter controversy. Thursday, they'll decide whether to seek a criminal probe.
Today's meeting felt more like a court proceeding at times than a committee meeting. Sen. Buck Newton, R-Nash, an attorney, handled the questioning. The three officials "deposed," for lack of a better term, were not sworn in. But they were also not allowed to hear each other's testimony, and were not represented by counsel.
The first witness, Vicki Stanley, is the administrative assistant and office manager for DOT COO Jim Trogdon. Breaking into tears during her half-hour stretch at the podium, she told the committee it was she who first suggested putting Trogdon's electronic signature on a letter edited by Perdue advisor Pryor Gibson.
Stanley said Trogden told her to have Gibson work with Deputy DOT Secretary Susan Coward on changes Gibson wanted to the letter.
When the changes were finished, Stanley said, Coward told Gibson she usually signed her own name "for" the name of the person she was signing for.
"Mr. Gibson said he would rather she signed Jim [Trogdon]'s name," Stanley said.
Stanley said Coward "appeared to hesitate." That's when Stanley offered to put Trogdon's electronic signature on the letter instead. "I could just tell she was hesitant about which way she wanted to sign."
Stanley apologized to the committee for the mistake. "Jim [Trogdon] had told me to ask Pryor to work with Susan on the changes - that made me think that whatever Susan had approved would be okay with Jim," she said, adding that she has worked with Coward for years.
Newton asked Stanley whether she was pressured by the Governor's office to make the changes. "No sir," she said. "I was just trying to be helpful and responsive, and I trusted that Jim had entrusted this to Susan, and I trusted Susan."
Deputy Secretary Susan Coward was the second witness. She said the sentence Gibson wanted added "didn't seem like a major change" to her.
"I was focused on other issues, and not intimately familiar on the funding timing issues associated with those projects," she conceded.
"Mr. Gibson was in hurry for those letters," she said, "and in haste, a mistake was made."
Asked whether Gibson indicated at all whether the governor was involved in the change, Coward said, "No, he did not."
The final witness was Kevin McLaughlin, Deputy Chief of Staff to Perdue. Gibson sought his legal help in drafting the change to Trogdon's letter.
McLaughlin agreed to help after Gibson explained that Trogdon's letter "left no option for funding and construction of the two projects if the expected litigation never occurred or was resolved before July 1, 2013."
McLaughlin said he, Gibson, and Coward didn't know what Trogdon knew - that the DOT had borrowed more money than needed for a third project, the Monroe bypass, and could use those funds if no litigation emerged to slow down the projects. Trogdon could not be reached by phone that morning.
Asked by Newton whether he had spoken with the governor about the letter and the changes, McLaughlin said no. "I had no conversation with the governor about that."
He also denied Newton's accusation that Perdue's office was trying to alter Trogdon's position without his approval. "My understanding was that [Gibson] was going to take the draft letter to the DOT for their review and approval," he said.
Thursday: Report coming
Tomorrow at 9am, Senate Rules is scheduled to hear a report summarizing the four hearings it has held so far on the DOT letters and recommending action.
Speaking to reporters, Senator Dan Blue, D-Wake, called the process a "witch hunt."
"This is the biggest bunch of crap I've ever seen occur in this legislature, and I've watched the proceedings here for almost 40 years," Blue said angrily.
"William Shakespeare had it right 400 years ago – it's a tempest in a teapot, and it is much ado about nothing. And it's all political posturing," said Blue. "It makes no sense to subject these hard-working civil servants to this kind of proceeding. And it's offensive to this process, and to me individually."
Blue insisted the sentence inserted by Perdue advisor Pryor Gibson was an effort to clarify Trogden's letter, not to change it. He said Gibson suggested the edits in an effort to accommodate two legislators, one Democrat and one Republican, about concerns regarding transportation projects in their areas.
"These ladies coming over as if they had committed some awful crimes? They were doing their jobs," Blue said. "There is a procedure set up in the Department of Transportation as to how [Trogdon's] signature gets affixed, how he approves things. Things went through the normal process."
"The General [Trogdon] disagreed with it after he had an opportunity to look at it," Blue added. "Had the letter been altered? It had not been altered in any form. It bore Mr. Trogdon's signature, which it should've done, but that signature had been affixed in an authorized manner."
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt voiced his concerns to the committee. "I don't think anything justifies what I have to sit here and watch this morning," he said. "I patiently sat here for five or six hearings. There's nothing there."
Nesbitt said Stanley had made a mistake, as any administrative assistant could.
"It's just unconscionable to pounce on somebody's assistant who was doing her job the best she could," Nesbitt said. "All this politics stuff is between us. Maybe if you want to, we can pounce on Jim Trogdon, or the secretary, or the governor. We are all in the game. These people aren't."
Committee chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, retorted that if his assistant had done what Stanley had done, he would have fired her.
"It's pretty plain she signed a letter that wasn't authorized to be signed by the person's name she signed," Apodaca said. "I'm not a lawyer. I'm just a normal person. But that doesn't work in my world. I certainly hope it doesn't work in yours."
"I've been here 10 years. I've never seen those events happen on the chamber floor, and by God, they will not happen again," he pledged.