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Special counsel may investigate MnDOT

  • Article by: Pat Doyle and Mark Brunswick
  • Star Tribune
  • October 3, 2007 - 9:54 PM

Leading DFL legislators moved Wednesday toward hiring a special counsel or consultant to investigate inspections and maintenance decisions by the Minnesota Department of Transportation before the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed.

"I would hope it would be somebody who ... knows how to manage this investigation and knows something about transportation," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

The move came as House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher called on Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau to resign, and chief state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan defended inspection and maintenance procedures.

Dorgan responded to a joint House and Senate committee investigating the bridge collapse that questioned whether inspections have been adequate.

"I think they are doing the very best they can," he said of inspectors.

Dorgan said the approximately $80 million spent each year to repair and replace bridges has been adequate but will soon need to be increased to $125 million to $130 million to keep up with aging structures.

In calling for a special counsel or consultant, Murphy said the person would help members of the joint committee conduct the investigation.

The committee is charged with conducting "a comprehensive review of all decisions potentially relevant to the bridge collapse." The panel will investigate the department's responses over the years to inspection reports and to the bridge collapse and determine whether the agency is adequately staffed and funded.

A special counsel would have authority to pursue any evidence of wrongdoing by MnDOT, Murphy said.

The joint committee voted to meet with Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and Kelliher, both DFL-Minneapolis, to discuss hiring a special counsel or outside expert with technical skills related to transportation.

Among committee members who supported the move was Republican Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said a candidate for a possible special counsel position is Andrew Luger, an unsuccessful DFL candidate for Hennepin County Attorney. Luger confirmed Wednesday that he has been approached about the job.

The committee investigation into MnDOT maintenance decisions will occur as Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles conducts his own examination. Nobles told legislators Wednesday that his examination would involve interviews of MnDOT employees, and that some could be offered confidentiality in exchange for information.

Molnau called 'unprepared'

Kelliher said she called on Molnau to resign after becoming increasingly concerned about her ability to lead MnDOT. Kelliher said Molnau appeared unprepared for many of the questions posed to her at a legislative hearing this week.

Last week, Murphy called on Gov. Tim Pawlenty to fire Molnau. Pawlenty refused.

Molnau faces the possibility of being ousted as commissioner by the Senate when the Legislature convenes in February.

In a statement Wednesday, MnDOT said Molnau had no intention of stepping down.

"Mn/DOT is diligently at work recovering from a major disaster and rebuilding a bridge vital to the region's economy," the statement read. "Lt. Gov. Molnau in her position as transportation commissioner is at the helm of that process and has no intention of resigning."

Support for Molnau also came from GOP Sens. Ray Vandeveer and Warren Limmer, who characterized her as a target of partisan attacks.

"There are two games that people could play in Minnesota this year. One is fantasy football and the other is the DFL fantasy disaster blame game," said Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake.

Meanwhile, a new Channel 5 Eyewitness News/Survey USA poll finds widespread discontent with Molnau's performance, with 53 percent of those polled saying she should resign.

The poll shows 57 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the job Molnau is doing as transportation commissioner overall and 55 percent disapprove of her handling of the I-35W bridge disaster.

The Legislature did not fare well, either, with 55 percent disapproving of its handling of the disaster.

Fewer respondents were willing to blame Molnau's boss, though. Fifty-six percent of those survey approved of Pawlenty's handling of the bridge disaster.

The poll of 500 adults was conducted on Oct. 1. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210 • pdoyle@startribune.com Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636 • mbrunswick@startribune.com

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