NC DOT letters inquiry heading to ethics panel

 The Associated Press

Thursday, June 28, 2012

 RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Senate Republicans agreed Thursday to send the contents of its two-week investigation over edited letters to lawmakers attributed to a high-ranking state Department of Transportation official to the State Ethics Commission for further scrutiny.

Member of the Senate Rules Committee voted along party-lines to send its findings to the ethics panel about correspondence that had been changed by aides within Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office and affixed with the digital signature of DOT Chief Operating Officer Jim Trogdon.

The committee is asking the bipartisan commission to review the case and determine whether further investigation is needed to determine whether state ethics laws may have been violated by anyone involved in the production of the letters. Committee chairman Sen. Tom Apodaca said the case could have been referred to the Wake County District Attorney’s Office, but he declined to offer that recommendation.

“I don’t see the criminal intent but I certainly see ethical issues at play here,” Apodaca, R-Henderson, told the committee. “I think our best course of action is the ethics commission and not law enforcement.”

Trogdon was out of town when the final editing was completed on the June 14 letters that appeared to reverse his earlier appraisal to budget-writers that $63 million for two politically divisive toll projects wouldn’t be needed for another years. Republicans haven’t been critical of Trogdon, who quickly recalled the letters later that day.

“At the heart of this matter is whether the North Carolina General Assembly can safely rely on the information presented to it as it considers the people’s business,” Apodaca said.

The Perdue aides — Pryor Gibson and Kevin McLaughlin — told the panel in separate appearances that the edits were merely designed to reiterate the governor’s long-term support for the Mid-Currituck Bridge and Garden Parkway and to leave the door open for funding next year.

Apodaca said the committee’s referral isn’t signaling out any one in particular for scrutiny, but he and other GOP senators spoke primarily about Gibson, a former state House member and Perdue’s chief liaison to the General Assembly.

Apodaca said questions remain whether Gibson acted within “ethical norms” when what he called “altered” letters were sent to legislators and whether he pressured other DOT workers to place Trodgon’s signature on them. Gibson told the committee last week he regretted how the letters were handled but that he was only trying to get the letters to lawmakers before a deadline.

Some Republicans didn’t buy Gibson’s contention, pointing to his long period of service within state government as proof he understood how to make the wheels of government run.

“In my belief, he knew exactly what he was doing, and I believe that is highly deserving of a referral to the ethics commission,” said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson.

Gibson declined comment when reached by phone, pointing to the statement of Perdue press secretary Chris Mackey. “The individuals involved have apologized, and it is time to get back to resolving the transportation issues that are important to the working families of North Carolina,” Mackey said.

Democrats on the committee said Republicans were making too much out of the letters flap and voted against the ethics commission referral. They dismissed GOP allegations that the letters were a “forgery” and said the edits were merely the result of sloppy or fast editing. Trogdon, a National Guard soldier, was on military maneuvers the morning that the letters to a pair of lawmakers were finalized.

“The only thing that happened is the unfortunate circumstance (that) Mr. Trogdon was unavailable,” said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. “Had he been available, everyone would have called him and said, ‘do you think this change is OK?’ … Why we want to continue this process is beyond me.”

The work of the eight-member State Ethics Commission and its staff is largely confidential when looking into complaints or referrals of potential ethical wrongdoing. Only certain elected officials and high-ranking administrators of state agencies are subject to the commission’s authority — in this case Gibson, McLaughlin, Trogdon and DOT Deputy Secretary Susan Coward. Coward worked with Gibson on the final letters.

The commission can dismiss a complaint and hold a public hearing if there’s probable cause wrongdoing occurred. The commission can refer cases to a prosecutor for potential criminal charges or someone like the governor for other appropriate action.