N.C. Senate panel wants more info on highway letters

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — An N.C. Senate panel Tuesday began investigating correspondence that lawmakers received from a top Department of Transportation administrator about funding needs for two highway toll projects, key portions of which had been altered.

Letters purported to be signed by DOT’s chief operating officer last week as the Senate debated its budget appeared to have reversed the agency’s view that $63 million in funding for the projects wasn’t needed this coming year as previously believed. Jim Trogdon, the chief operating officer, wrote later the same day to some lawmakers that the letters, using a copy of his signature, were sent “without my review or consent.”

N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said the panel will conduct an inquiry this week into what led to the Legislature receiving what he called “fraudulent” correspondence from DOT and Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration.

Apodaca said the letters called into question “the integrity of the information provided by the Senate as it goes about its business.” The committee will ask representatives of DOT and Perdue’s office to appear before the committee later this week to explain what happened.

“We will go where the facts lead us,” Apodaca, R-Henderson, said after the brief hearing. “I’m not ruling out anything at this point. This is the beginning. We’re going forward to see where it takes us.”

Trogdon originally wrote June 8 to transportation budget-writers at the Legislature. He said $28 million for the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge on the northern Outer Banks and $35 million for the Garden Parkway west of Charlotte would now be needed during the 2013-14 fiscal year, and not next year, to help pay for borrowing for the projects. The delays, he wrote, were due to expected litigation over the projects.

But separate letters with similar language attributed to Trogdon dated June 14 to Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, and Rep. Bill Current, R-Gaston, 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. White offered an amendment during last week’s Senate budget debate that would have restored funds to the Mid-Currituck project. The amendment failed.

Trogdon said in a statement that DOT Deputy Secretary Susan Coward and the “governor’s staff” believed changes made to his draft letter responding separately to White and Current were accurate and that he would have agreed to it.

Trogdon said he wasn’t available to review the language before it was needed. The letters were distributed as senators were about to debate the budget. Coward approved the language, and his signature was put on the letter, Trogdon said.

“Steps have been taken to ensure that confusion like this does not happen in the future,” Trogdon wrote.

Apodaca said no one is questioning the integrity of Trogdon, who is also a two-star general in the North Carolina National Guard. Trogdon immediately wrote to lawmakers explaining his first letter dated June 14 should be disregarded.

N.C. Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Senate transportation budget subcommittee, said he knew something was not right when he saw the letter. Trogdon would have given Senate leaders the courtesy of letting them know he had changed his mind, Rabon said.

Perdue Press Secretary Chris Mackey said in a statement that members of the governor’s staff “suggested some edits” to Trogdon’s draft. Mackey said Perdue and DOT — in coordination with General Assembly members — want “to ensure that these projects move forward as quickly as possible.” Perdue’s office plans to send a representative to the Senate Rules Committee inquiry on Thursday, spokesman Mark Johnson said.

Rabon said the Senate budget used the $63 million to help fill an estimated $150 million hole in revenues due to declining gas tax revenues and plans to cap the tax for a year. House and Senate negotiations are working on a final budget agreement that includes transportation funding. The House budget didn’t tap into the $63 million.

The dust-up reached into the governor’s race this fall, with Republican Pat McCrory calling on Perdue to ask for an review of what happened by the State Bureau of Investigation.

“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,” McCrory said in a statement. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, also criticized the altered documents: “This is no way to conduct business and I would never condone it.”