MnDOT fires manager accused of improper travel
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has fired its emergency manager. MnDOT officials cited several reasons for firing Sonia Morphew Pitt, including her decision to remain out of the state in the days following the I-35W bridge collapse.
Department officials said that Pitt, whose official title was director of homeland security and emergency management, committed serious employee misconduct, misused state resources, and put her personal life ahead of her professional obligations.
She has been under intense scrutiny since it was revealed that she was out of town when the bridge collapsed on Aug. 1 and didn't return to Minnesota until 10 days later.
Pitt, who had been on administrative leave during an internal investigation into her travel expenses, could not be reached for comment.
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MnDOT's investigation found that Pitt used a state cell phone for personal calls at a cost of $600, used state resources for vacation flights and was more interested in her personal relationship with an employee of the Federal Highway Administration than the bridge collapse. The department is asking Pitt to repay the department more than $1,300.
The investigation found that 90 percent of the out-of-state calls made on Pitt's state cell phone were personal. A bulk of those calls were to Daniel Ferezan, a transportation security specialist for the Highway Administration. Several reports suggest that Pitt had a relationship with Ferezan.
Ian Grossman, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said on Friday that Ferezan was not under investigation.
Ferezan deferred questions to Grossman, who said he believed there was "both a professional and personal relationship" between Ferezan and Pitt.
"He's in the same line of work as she is. He does for the Federal Highway Administration similar work that she does in Minnesota," Grossman said, adding that he didn't have details about their private relationship.
In fact, the investigator believes that Pitt's relationship with Ferezan took priority over Pitt's duties as director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Pitt did not return to Minneapolis after the bridge collapse and instead stayed at a state-approved conference in Boston.
One of Pitt's colleagues told MnDOT investigators that Pitt told him that she didn't need to return to Minneapolis because "her staff was doing a great job" and she "was comfortable directing efforts from Boston."
The investigation also found that Pitt spent more time on her cell phone with the FHA official than with MnDOT officials who were dealing with the tragedy. MnDOT said Pitt's managers did not order Pitt to return to Minneapolis but said she should have made that decision on her own.
Investigators also allege that Pitt altered documents for the Boston trip by adding unauthorized stops in Washington before and after the Boston trip. Pitt was reimbursed for $850 in work related expenses even though investigators say she was "not in authorized work travel status."
MnDOT is not the only one looking into Pitt's activities. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said he's investigating Pitt's travel and how MnDOT handles employee trips. Nobles says that he hopes to finish his work by the end of November.
"She engaged in a lot of travel - an unusually high amount of travel I would say for a state employee," Nobles said.
If investigators believe she made improper claims for state money through questionable travel, Nobles said he could refer Pitt's case to criminal prosecutors.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)