State Senate to investigate phony DOT letters

Posted June 19, 2012 10:16 a.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2012 7:56 a.m. EDT

— State Senate leaders are promising a thorough investigation into letters from the governor's office that misrepresented the position of a high-ranking North Carolina Department of Transportation official. 

The letters were delivered by Gov. Beverly Perdue's staff to lawmakers on June 14, the day of the Senate's final vote on its budget proposal. The letters bore the electronic signature of Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer of the DOT, but he didn't write them. 

In the budget, Senate Transportation Committee chairmen had taken funding for two projects – the Mid-Currituck Bridge on the Outer Banks and the Garden Parkway near Charlotte – and moved the money into another budget line. They had already discussed it with Trogdon, who told them the money wouldn't be needed for those projects in the coming fiscal year. 

The letter that came from the governor's office said the money would be needed, after all. 

Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, cited the letter in an attempt to amend the budget to restore funding for the Mid-Currituck Bridge, but his amendment failed.

A few hours later, Trogdon issued another letter to lawmakers, saying the letter provided by the governor's office was sent "without my review or consent. I respectfully request that the letter be disregarded."

Trogdon issued a statement Tuesday afternoon apologizing for the mix-up.

"In an effort to respond quickly to inquiries from concerned members of the General Assembly, a letter was sent under my signature last week that was confusing. I was not available to review the final language of the letter before the time that it was needed. The Governor’s staff and DOT’s deputy secretary for intergovernmental affairs believed both that the changes were accurate and that I would have approved them. Therefore, the deputy secretary approved the revised language, and staff placed my signature on the letter," he said in the statement. "Steps have been taken to ensure that confusion like this does not happen in the future."

Still, lawmakers want to know exactly how the letter came to their desks. It was reportedly approved by Perdue adviser and former lawmaker Pryor Gibson.

"There's something not right here, and we need to get to the bottom of it," Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca said, adding that, "We in no way question the integrity of Jim Trogdon."

Senate Transportation Chairman Bill Rabon said he was instantly suspicious of the letter.

"I immediately said, 'Jim Trogdon did not do this,'" Rabon, R-Brunswick, told the Rules Committee. "He's not that sort of man. He would not have retracted what he said to me and the other chairs without notifying us."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory quickly jumped on the controversy, calling it "another example of North Carolina’s broken government" and noting that he is a qualified outsider who could fix it.

“If the reports are accurate, the blatant manipulation of data and facts to mislead is a continuation of the culture of deception and corruption by the executive branch," McCrory said in a statement. "There are many questions that deserve an answer from our executive leadership, including who knew what when about the falsification of documents with the intent to mislead. We call on the governor to ask for an SBI review of this matter."

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who is the Democratic nominee for governor, said that he doesn't support the move by Perdue's office.

"This is no way to conduct business, and I would never condone it," Dalton said in a statement.

Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey said McCrory's push for a criminal investigation is overblown.

“Republicans are using inflammatory language, which tries to make a mountain out of a molehill, because they’re hoping it will distract attention from the final budget they’re about to release, which is going to harm schoolchildren across North Carolina,” Mackey said in a statement.

She said the misunderstanding grew out of a bipartisan attempt to advance the two road projects, which she said is mandated by law.

"The Governor’s Office worked with DOT on a letter to send to legislators expressing the administration’s support for these projects. A DOT official composed a draft letter, and members of the governor’s staff suggested some edits," Mackey said in a separate statement. "The Governor’s Office and DOT will continue to work together – in coordination with members of the General Assembly – to ensure that these projects move forward as quickly as possible.”

Apodaca, R-Henderson, said the Senate Rules Committee will meet Wednesday morning to hear from transportation officials. "I am requesting that DOT provide us with someone that can give us clarity on these issues," he said. 

The committee will also meet Thursday morning to hear from Perdue's staffers. "I would like to hear from the governor's office on what transpired on the fraudulent letter that was presented to us," Apodaca said.

If the governor's staffers don't accept the invitation, Apodaca said, he wouldn't rule out the use of the legislature's subpoena power to compel them to appear.  He also said the Senate would turn over any evidence to the state Ethics Commission or Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

"It sounds like to me that somebody signed a letter that they shouldn't have," he said. "It wasn't the person whose name was on the letter, and that's just wrong and it's against the law."