Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - 10:16

Auditor to investigate emergency manager's trip

Department official did not return until 10 days after Minnesota bridge collapse

State Legislative Auditor James Nobles has launched an investigation into alleged improprieties in the work schedule and state-paid travels of a senior MnDOT official, he announced Sept. 18.

When the I-35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1, Sonia Kay Morphew Pitt, the MnDOT official in charge of responding to emergencies, was at a conference. She didn’t return to the Twin Cities until 10 days after the collapse, according to MnDOT.

Nobles also criticized MnDOT for failing to notify him of the suspected misdealing.

“These things are spposed to be reported to me. It’s a legal requirement,” he said. “It was not done promptly.” Nobles found out about the alleged improprieties from radio reports about a story that originally appeared in the Star Tribune.

Pitt was reportedly on a business trip on the East Coast when the bridge collapsed. MnDOT records show that she was in Washington and Cambridge, Mass., for 16 nights. Her primary reason for the trip was to attend a program at Harvard University on emergency preparedness.

Pitt’s request form stated, “July 30-Aug. 4, 2007, plus group project work in D.C.” A Harvard official said the emergency preparedness program was held from July 31 to Aug. 3.

“What were people thinking that they didn’t bring her back?” said State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, a member of the joint House-Senate committee on the bridge collapse. “It’s almost incomprehensible. This was a catastrophe of historic proportions. What could have been more important in Washington?”

Nobles said he is currently figuring out the scope of his investigation. In addition to investigating Pitt’s schedules and travels, he said he might also look into the effectiveness of expense controls at MnDOT.

MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender admitted that the agency did not follow protocol in informing Nobles about its internal investigation of Pitt. She said an auditor at MnDOT, Dan Kahnke, had verbally notified a member of Nobles’ staff about two weeks prior.

Pitt is currently on leave while MnDOT conducts an internal investigation.

Star Tribune

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