When the I-35W bridge collapsed, the department official in charge of emergency response was at a conference; she didn't return for 10 days.
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, Nobles said Tuesday. He also criticized MnDOT for failing to notify him of the suspected misdealing.
"These things are supposed to be reported to me. It's a legal requirement," he said. "It was not done promptly." Nobles learned about the alleged improprieties from radio reports about a story that originally appeared in the Star Tribune.
The person under scrutiny is Sonia Kay Morphew Pitt, the MnDOT official who is in charge of responding to emergencies. She reportedly was on a business trip on the East Coast when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. According to MnDOT, she didn't return to the Twin Cities until 10 days after the disaster. Pitt, 43, of Red Wing, is on leave while MnDOT conducts an internal investigation.
State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, a member of the joint House-Senate committee on the bridge collapse, said Pitt's long absence during the bridge crisis and her history of business trips -- 17 since mid-2006, costing the state at least $26,400 -- raises serious questions about upper management at MnDOT, which is headed by Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau.
"What were people thinking that they didn't bring her back?" said Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury. "It's almost incomprehensible. This was a catastrophe of historic proportions. What could have been more important in Washington?"
State Department of Transportation records show that Pitt 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.
The request form stated, "July 30-August 4, 2007 plus group project work in DC." A Harvard official said the program ran July 31 to Aug. 3.
Pitt was paid her usual wage of $40.67 an hour, or at least $84,593 a year. She has been in her job since it was created in 2001 by former MnDOT senior executive Marthand Nookala. Under Nookala's supervision, the position was reallocated for her on July 5, 2005.
On Tuesday, the Star Tribune learned that Pitt hired one of Nookala's daughters as an office specialist, earning $11.90 an hour. MnDOT's records show that Asha Upadhyaya Nookala's job ended Sept. 1. Records don't say when she was hired or why she left.
Nobles said he is in the process of sorting out the scope of his investigation. Besides looking at Pitt's schedules and travels, he said he might also investigate the effectiveness of expense controls at MnDOT.
MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender acknowledged that the agency did not properly notify Nobles of its investigation of Pitt. She said an auditor at MnDOT, Dan Kahnke, had verbally notified a member of Nobles' staff about two weeks ago.
Tony Kennedy 612-673-4213