Audit questions $26,000 in charges tied to ex-MnDOT manager

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Legislative Auditor James Nobles found that Sonia Morphew Pitt racked up more than $11,000 in unauthorized, unreasonable and inappropriate expenses. He says Pitt also charged the state for more than $14,000 of work time that was actual personal leave, a full nine weeks of work.

However, Nobles found that Pitt did more than cost the state money. In the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 1 I-35W bridge collapse, employees with the Minnesota Department of Transportation said Pitt's absence led to some confusion over who was in charge.

Nobles characterized Pitt's actions as "a clear pattern of abuse."

"Ms. Pitt's misconduct was inexcusable. It was also preventable."

Furthermore, Nobles said Pitt's actions "reveal a pattern of inadequate supervision and financial control at MnDOT. Ms. Pitt's misconduct was inexcusable. It was also preventable."

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Nobles says MnDOT officials should have known about Pitt's misconduct. He says they tracked Pitt's expense reports between July 2005 and September 2007. He found that Pitt took unnecessary business trips, claimed reimbursement for training that did not occur and inflated mileage reimbursement.

MnDOT fired Pitt earlier this month after finding that she charged the state for personal travel, used her state cell phone for personal use and used poor judgment by not returning to Minnesota after the bridge collapse. Pitt was in Boston at the time, and did not return to the state for nearly two weeks after the bridge collapse.

Pitt told MnDOT investigators that she managed the bridge response while in Boston and Washington D.C.

Investigations by MnDOT and the Legislative Auditor says she should have known better.

Lisa Freese
MnDOT's Deputy Commissioner Lisa Freese.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Pitt did not return repeated calls from Minnesota Public Radio and did not discuss her actions to the Legislative Auditor.

MnDOT's Deputy Commissioner Lisa Freese says her agency agrees with the auditor's findings, and will take the steps to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

"We are certainly sorry for this situation that happened. We do believe that Sonia Pitt and her activities were an outlier. Quite frankly, she did this with intent," says Freese.

Nobles and several state lawmakers on the Legislative Audit Commission expressed dismay that MnDOT could let Pitt's behavior go on as long as it did. The report said several employee characterized Pitt's behavior as "aggressive" and belligerant.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, says he wants to know which MnDOT managers allowed Pitt's actions to continue.

MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau and other department managers have been heavily scrutinized for how they managed the department over the past four years. Several leaders in both the House and Senate called on Molnau to resign.

But Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, said lawmakers were making a stretch if they attempt to blame Molnau for a single MnDOT employee's actions.

Nobles recommended that the Minnesota Attorney General recover the state funds from Pitt. He also referred the report to the Ramsey County attorney for possible criminal action.