Carolina Journal News Reports

Officials claim letter reversing department funding position was a mistake

Jun. 28th, 2012

RALEIGH – Sparks flew during a Wednesday Senate committee meeting after a top aide to Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue said that he never intended to alter the opinion of a top Department of Transportation official when he changed a letter about the timing for money on two toll projects.Democratic Sens. Dan Blue of Wake County and Martin Nesbitt of Buncombe County objected to what they called “one-sided cross-examination” of two DOT employees who spoke before the Senate Rules Committee.“That’s outrageous,” Nesbitt said. “I don’t think anything justifies what I had to sit here and watch this morning.”“OK, you had your say, and I’ll have mine,” Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, responded. Apodaca is the Senate Rules Committee chairman.

Apodaca said that in the 10 years he’s been in the Senate, he’d never seen the type of events as those that occurred this year. He was referring to instances in which electronic signatures of the DOT’s chief operating officer, Jim Trogdon, was placed on two altered letters. The alterations said the opposite of what Trogdon had written earlier.

“That doesn’t work in my world,” Apodaca said. “And I certainly hope it doesn’t work in y’all’s world.”

Before the senators’ remarks, Kevin McLaughlin, Perdue’s deputy chief of staff, and two DOT employees, Susan Coward, a deputy secretary, and Vicki Stanley, Trogdon’s executive assistant, gave their account of what happened June 14, when Trogdon’s letters were altered and the digital signature was applied. Trogdon was in Charlotte that morning and was participating at an event that made him unavailable to discuss revisions to his letters.

Trogdon had said that money for the two toll projects — the Mid-Currituck Bridge on the Outer Banks and the Garden Parkway in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties – would not be needed in the 2012-13 budget because anticipated litigation over the projects would prevent construction from beginning until the following fiscal year.

McLaughlin told committee members that he felt that Trogdon’s letter needed to be altered so that money would be available for the projects in case the litigation did not occur or in case the disputes were settled early.

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, questioned McLaughlin about the changes.

“Is it customary for you guys in the governor’s office to send someone over to an agency to alter positions when you don’t agree with what they’ve already written?” Newton asked.

“I would hope you are not saying that this process was altering someone’s position,” McLaughlin said. He said he was seeking a clarification.

“It seems quite clear to me that’s exactly what happened,” Newton said.

McLaughlin said he did not discuss the changes in the letters with Perdue until after news reports brought the controversy to light.

Coward and Stanley detailed their roles in making the changes in Trogdon’s letters. They said they were made after Pryor Gibson, a former Anson County Democratic representative and currently Perdue’s top legislative aide, requested the change.

Both said the changes were a mistake and apologized for them. Neither said that they were pressured to make changes, but did say that they felt an urgency to get the letter out.

“In haste, a mistake was made,” Coward said.

Apodaca said he expects the committee to take up the issue again Thursday, as it decides its next course of action. He said he expected a “spirited debate” at that meeting.

Barry Smith is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.