Nov. 10: MnDOT official fired over improper trips

An investigation also found that the former emergency chief overcharged the state for expenses and sullied the agency's reputation.

Sonia Pitt

Sonia Pitt was put on paid leave in early September.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation emergency response executive who failed to return to the state for 10 days after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed was fired Friday for taking unauthorized trips, making excessive personal calls on her MnDOT cell phone and bringing embarrassment to the state.

Sonia Kay Morphew Pitt, who has been MnDOT's director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management since 2003, has been on paid leave since early September.

Pitt has the right to appeal her firing. To do so, she would have to respond to a voluminous investigative report by MnDOT that details a state-paid vacation flight to Las Vegas, unauthorized flights to Washington, D.C., and a finding that she made frequent, lengthy personal calls to a male friend at the Federal Highway Administration on her MnDOT cell phone during work hours.

The investigation found that there was no work-related reason for her to be in Washington, D.C., for 13 days before and after I-35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, killing 13 people.

In the days after the collapse, the investigation also found that she spent more time on the phone with Daniel Ferezan, her friend at the highway administration, than on work-related communications.

Staying away from crisis

Kevin Hanretta, who was at a conference with Pitt when the bridge collapsed, told MnDOT's investigator that Pitt was torn between staying on the East Coast and returning to Minnesota. Hanretta told the investigator that Pitt decided to stay put because her staff was "doing a great job" and she was comfortable directing them from afar.

But MnDOT's report said that while Pitt claimed that she was in "near constant telephone and e-mail communication with her staff" during the crisis, she actually spent slightly more time on the phone with Ferezan than she did in work-related communications.

The report said that Pitt and Ferezan, the highway administration's program manager for transportation security, were on the phone 31 times in the first three days of the bridge crisis for a total of 149 minutes. In that same period, Pitt made 46 work calls to MnDOT contacts for a total of 131 minutes.

Of the 32 e-mails she sent and received in those three days, only 12 were related to the bridge collapse, according to the report.

One e-mail from Ferezan to Pitt was made on Aug. 2, while rescue workers back in Minneapolis were still struggling to recover bodies from the currents of the Mississippi River. The e-mail had a subject heading of "FW: Immediate Inspection of Deck Truss Bridges." In the text, Ferezan wrote: "FYI: How's the clam bake?"

At the time, Pitt was at Harvard University, where she was attending a three-day emergency preparedness course approved by her MnDOT superiors.

Also attending the management course was Lisa Dressler, the public works interagency coordinator for the City of Minneapolis. Dressler's superiors directed her to return to Minneapolis, and she did so within 24 hours, the report said.

But Pitt, 43, of Red Wing, received no such call. After finishing the course at Harvard, she flew to Washington and found an office to work in at the federal highway administration. But the administration's emergency coordinator, Jesse Johnson, had no idea she was there when he sent her an e-mail on Aug. 5, the report said.

MnDOT's report said it is difficult to gauge the exact amount of time Pitt spent working during her post-Harvard stay in Washington from Aug. 3-11, but she filed for her regular pay plus several hours of overtime. MnDOT had not authorized any time in Washington either before or after the Harvard trip, the report said.

On the night before Pitt was to fly back to Minnesota, a shuttle service sent her a confirmation e-mail detailing where the driver would pick her up. The shuttle would pick her up at 6 a.m. at an address listed as Ferezan's residence, according to the e-mail and a review by the newspaper of Ferezan's prior addresses.

Documents show that Ferezan and Pitt met in mid-September 2006 at an infrastructure security conference in Orlando, Fla. Ferezan, 61, who lives in suburban Washington D.C., has some responsibilities for emergency coordination related to transportation security.

Ferezan and Pitt told the investigator in separate interviews that they began a "professional relationship focused on information sharing related to transportation security and emergency preparedness efforts," according to the investigator's report.

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