Sept. 15: MnDOT official's travel costs questioned

  • Article by: Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe
  • Star Tribune
  • September 18, 2007 - 10:17 PM

The Minnesota Department of Transportation official in charge of emergency management is being investigated for suspected improprieties related to her work schedule and state-paid travel, sources familiar with the investigation said.

The official, Sonia Kay Morphew Pitt, was on an East Coast business trip when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1. She didn't return to the Twin Cities for another 10 days, MnDOT travel records show.

She came under internal investigation at the agency after colleagues complained about her absence, sources said.

A review of Pitt's travel records, employee expense reports and time sheets shows that she was a frequent out-of-state traveler. Three of the 11 business trips she booked for this year -- including the one she was on when the bridge collapsed -- included itineraries that aren't fully explained by the authorization forms she filled out to gain approval for leaving the state.

MnDOT confirmed that a complaint is open against Pitt, who is director of MnDOT's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and that she is on leave.

But MnDOT officials said they are not allowed to provide other details and would not comment on any of the records reviewed by the newspaper.

Pitt, 43, of Red Wing, did not respond to numerous phone calls, and MnDOT spokesperson Lucy Kender said Pitt declined to be interviewed. Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also serves as state transportation commissioner, knows about the inquiry, a source said.

Part of Pitt's job, according to MnDOT's website, is to act as the liaison between MnDOT and the "emergency response community" when there is a disaster, including nuclear accidents and terrorist attacks. When the bridge collapsed, representatives from state and local agencies met daily at the state's Emergency Operations Center in downtown St. Paul to coordinate rescue and recovery efforts, said John Kerr, deputy director of the state Department of Public Safety's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Kerr said that Pitt would have been welcome during those meetings and that during the recent flooding she worked at the Emergency Operations Center at least once.

But during the bridge collapse, she directed her office's response to the crisis "from her out-of-state location," MnDOT said. The agency declined to say how she did this.

Travel records show that Pitt flew to Washington, D.C., on July 26 and then went on to Cambridge, Mass., on July 31 to attend an education program at Harvard University. The program was the second phase of training for government officials who are "responsible for preparedness, response, or recovery from terrorist events or natural disasters."

When the Harvard program ended on Aug. 3, Pitt returned to Washington and stayed there until Aug. 11, records show.

The request and authorization form for the trip didn't explain why she needed to be gone for 16 consecutive nights or what, precisely, she was doing in Washington. That time period did not include any vacation days.

Under "Date of Event," the request and authorization form said "July 30-August 4, 2007 plus group project work in DC." Under "Explain Benefits to MnDOT," Pitt gave a description of the Harvard course but made no mention of additional work in Washington.

On Pitt's employee expense report, she listed "training" as the reason for each weekday she was in Washington, getting paid her usual wage of $40.67 an hour, or at least $84,593 a year.

In St. Paul, Pitt supervises an office of five people at MnDOT's main headquarters next to the State Capitol. Her office budget in 2005 -- the most recent year for which MnDOT provided information -- was $5.4 million.

Documents show that Pitt has been in the job since it was created in 2001 by former MnDOT senior executive Marthand Nookala. Under Nookala's supervision, the position was reallocated for Pitt on July 5, 2005.

Before taking command of the office, which is partially funded with federal dollars, Pitt had worked as a publicity and communications agent for MnDOT and other state agencies.

Cathy Clark, a member of Pitt's office staff, said she has been named acting director of the office. Clark's previous work experience includes a stint as a television news reporter in Duluth.

Since July 2006, Pitt has scheduled 17 out-of-state business trips for herself, including an eight-day training session that was scheduled to start today in Emmitsburg, Md., for "crisis communication during emergency situations."

Including per diem payments, hotel, air fare, registration fees, ground travel and other expenses, all the trips combined cost at least $26,400, documents show.

Pitt flew from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., on March 2 for a Harvard seminar scheduled to start on March 4 in Cambridge.

The travel authorization form called for a round-trip flight between Minneapolis and Washington, but records show that Pitt added a third leg, taking her from Washington to Boston in time for the start of the program.

For her return to the Twin Cities on March 9, Pitt flew nonstop from Boston. Her travel summary said $163.82 of the $673.82 in total air fare was a "personal expense."

In June, Pitt traveled at state expense to Palm Springs, Calif., for an industry exposition on intelligent transportation systems. The authorization form she filled out in January to gain approval for the trip said she would return to the Twin Cities from Palm Springs.

But a month before she left, she had the state's travel agent revise her trip so that she would fly from Palm Springs to Las Vegas. There was no mention of a Las Vegas trip in the authorization form.

The trip to Palm Springs had started June 3. At 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, Pitt flew to Las Vegas and stayed there until Sunday. For Friday, June 8, she filled out her time sheet to indicate that she had worked for eight hours.

On Sunday, June 10, Pitt flew from Las Vegas to Washington. She had gained approval in May for four days of training in Washington starting June 12. But instead of returning to the Twin Cities on June 16, as stated in the authorization form, she stayed in Washington through June 20.

On her employee expense report for the period of June 10 to June 20, she listed "training" as the reason for being away from the office on each of the 10 days. • 612-673-4213 • 612-673-1745

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