RALEIGH, N.C. — A top North Carolina Department of Transportation leader said Wednesday his office needed to quickly send to lawmakers letters edited by Gov. Beverly Perdue's staff that appeared to reverse his earlier statements on two toll projects.
DOT's Chief Operating Officer Jim Trogdon was speaking to a Senate committee investigating correspondence sent under his signature with details altered without his express approval. He said a Perdue aide insisted that Trogdon's signature be on the letters.
The letters appeared to change his earlier correspondence sent to budget-writers that $63 million for the projects wasn't necessarily needed next year. Trogdon quickly disavowed the letters' contents. Now, Senate Republican leaders believe they were misled with the June 14 letters, distributed just before a key budget floor vote.
Trogdon is also a National Guard general who was in Charlotte on a military exercise while the changes were made. He said DOT employees in his office were pushed to finalize the letters before the budget debate.
Trogdon said Perdue aide Pryor Gibson had edited a draft of Trogdon's response to two legislators about whether $28 million was needed next year for the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge on the northern Outer Banks and $35 million for the Garden Parkway west of Charlotte.
The edits, Trogdon said, were presented to DOT staff "as a factual statement reviewed by the governor's staff and attorneys and must be completed" by 10:45 a.m. June 14. The Senate floor debate began shortly after 11 a.m.
Trogdon said the edited version of the letters was originally supposed to be signed by DOT Deputy Secretary Susan Coward for him, but Gibson "stated that it had to come from my signature." Trogdon's digital signature was placed on the letters, he said.
He said Coward was put in a very difficult position and felt pressured. Although he had already told lawmakers the funding wasn't needed this year, he said Coward believed he would approve the letter, based on what Gibson told her.
"She's known (Gibson) for 20 years and trusted his statement and judgment, and in this case, that judgment was flat wrong," Trogdon told WRAL News.
Gibson, a former state House member considered a key lobbyist for Perdue at the legislature, is supposed to speak to the panel Thursday, said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.
"The real crux of this inquiry at this point (is) who signed the letter and why," Apodaca said.
He said Tuesday that the inquiry into the letters isn't meant to question Trogdon's integrity.
Trogdon said he couldn't speculate on Gibson's motivations but said he apparently misinterpreted a budget provision.
"None of our staff had any desire or indication that they were trying to mislead anyone. They thought it was factual based on its face value." he said.
A Perdue spokeswoman said Tuesday that members of the governor's staff "suggested some edits" to Trogdon's draft and that Perdue and DOT – in coordination with General Assembly members – want "to ensure that these projects move forward as quickly as possible."
DOT leaders have tried over the past few years to remove the perception that political considerations trumped facts and figures when it comes to road-building decisions.
"Our objectives and our mission (have) been to restore trust and confidence in DOT to be the very best stewards of our existing resources," Trogdon said Wednesday.