Local News

DMV Commissioner Steps Down

Posted July 18, 2007 3:35 p.m. EDT
Updated July 18, 2007 7:47 p.m. EDT

— The commissioner of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles resigned Wednesday amid questions over the approval of a vehicle title for a friend in Cumberland County.

A former Cumberland County register of deeds, George Tatum had headed the DMV since 2003. Mark Foster, chief financial officer of the state Department of Transportation, DMV's parent agency, was named interim commissioner while state officials search for a permanent replacement, NCDOT spokesman Ernie Seneca said.

The resignation came one day after a longtime DMV inspector filed a whistle-blower suit against DMV, Tatum and other division officials. Joey Gardner alleged he has been harassed in recent weeks since he questioned the approval of a vehicle title for a friend of Tatum's.

Robert Kinlaw, a Fayetteville supermarket owner, received a state antique car title for a replica 1937 Ford truck. The title saves the owner hundreds of dollars in taxes and makes the car more valuable.

Kinlaw had been denied an antique title after his truck was inspected in Nash County, but he later received a title after taking the truck to a Fayetteville inspector.

DMV's internal affairs office briefly suspended Gardner after he questioned the title in an e-mail to his superiors, and Gardner alleged in his suit that his state-issued gun had been confiscated and that he had been ordered to undergo repeated mental evaluations.

A DOT deputy secretary reversed Gardner's suspension within a few hours.

Tatum and Kinlaw have denied any wrongdoing. Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to examine the case.

Seneca declined to comment on whether Tatum's resignation was linked to the controversy. Tippett also declined to comment on Tatum's departure.

But Gov. Mike Easley, who appointed Tatum to the DMV post, said his resignation was the right move.

"I believe it was appropriate," Easley said.

Gardner didn't demand Tatum's resignation in his suit, but attorney Michael Byrne said he's pleased DMV appears to be willing to settle the dispute.

"We feel their personnel are their concern, except to the extent that may impact Mr. Gardner and that he's allowed to do his job in a fair, open and honest way," Byrne said.

"This is exactly the kind of thing we certainly watch out for on behalf of employees to make sure government does remain open and that employees don't feel like there's a chilling effect on their right to speak up on behalf of themselves or for taxpayers," said Ardis Watkins, director of legislative affairs for the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

In a Wednesday court hearing in the whistle-blower lawsuit, DMV officials agreed to give Gardner back his weapon and not to require any more mental exams.