By GARY D. ROBERTSON
The Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. — A North Carolina Senate panel began Tuesday investigating correspondence that lawmakers received from a top Department of Transportation administrator about funding needs for two highway toll projects, key portions of which had been altered.
Letters purported to be signed by DOT's chief operating officer last week as the Senate debated its budget appeared to have reversed the agency's view that $63 million in funding for the projects wasn't needed this coming year as previously believed. Jim Trogdon wrote later the same day to some lawmakers that the letters, using a copy of his signature, were sent "without my review or consent."
Sen. Tom Apodaca, chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said the panel will conduct an inquiry this week into what led to the Legislature receiving what he called "fraudulent" correspondence from DOT and Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration.
Apodaca said the letters called into question "the integrity of the information provided by the Senate as it goes about this business." The committee will ask representatives of DOT and Perdue's office to appear before the committee later this week to explain what happened.
"We will go where the facts lead us," Apodaca, R-Henderson, said after the brief hearing. "I'm not ruling out anything at this point. This is the beginning. We're going forward to see where it takes us."
Apodaca said no one is questioning the integrity of Trogdon, who is also a two-star general in the North Carolina National Guard. Trogdon immediately wrote to lawmakers explaining his first letter dated June 14 should be disregarded.
Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Senate transportation budget subcommittee, said he knew something was not right when he saw the letter. Trogdon would have given Senate leaders the courtesy of letting them know he had changed his mind, Rabon said.
"I immediately said, 'Jim Trogdon did not do this. He's not that sort of man,'" Rabon told the rules committee.
Trogdon originally wrote June 8 to Rabon and other transportation budget-writers. He said $28 million for the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge on the northern Outer Banks and $35 million for the Garden Parkway west of Charlotte would now be needed during the 2013-14 fiscal year and not next year to help pay for borrowing for the projects. The delays, he wrote, were due to expected litigation over the projects.
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Perdue's office and the Department of Transportation didn't immediately comment Tuesday on the committee inquiry and the requests by Apodaca for agency representatives to attend Wednesday and Thursday. Apodaca wouldn't rule out using the Legislature's subpoena power to compel attendance.
A Perdue spokesman told The News & Observer of Raleigh, which first reported details of the letter (http://bit.ly/NMt8pS), that members of the governor's staff had altered draft versions of letters Trogdon had drawn up for two lawmakers where the toll projects are planned. The letters were distributed at the Legislative Building as senators were about to debate the budget.
Perdue supports the toll projects and wants funding in place for them, deputy communications director Mark Johnson told the newspaper.
Rabon said the Senate budget used the $63 million to help fill an estimated $150 million hole in revenues due to declining gas tax revenues and plans to cap the tax for a year. House and Senate negotiations are working on a final budget agreement that includes transportation funding. The House budget didn't tap into the $63 million.
Separate letters attributed to Trogdon dated June 14 to Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, and Rep. Bill Current, R-Gaston, suggested the money be retained for the projects in next year's budget "to be certain that NCDOT can proceed' on them as soon as possible. Trogdon's electronic signature was placed on the letter, The News & Observer reported.
White offered an amendment during last week's Senate budget debate that would have restored funds to the Mid-Currituck project. The amendment failed.
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