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N.C. DOT official explains how letters were altered

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — A top N.C. Department of Transportation leader said Wednesday his office needed to quickly furnish lawmakers with 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. The altered letters suggested the money should be retained for the projects in next year’s budget “to be certain that NCDOT can proceed’ on them as soon as possible.

Trogdon said the edited versions of the letters were 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.

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. Apodaca said this week that the inquiry letters are not mean to question Trogdon’s integrity. Trogdon wrote another letter on the afternoon of June 14 stating the letters from earlier in the day were not accurate.

Trogdon said in a statement Tuesday that “steps have been taken to ensure that confusion like this does not happen in the future.”

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.

The final budget agreement released Wednesday by Republican leaders still eliminated $63 million previously earmarked for the two toll projects for next year. Trogdon wrote June 8 to budget-writers saying the money wouldn’t be required to help with project debt until the 2013-14 fiscal year.