No felony charges for fired emergency manager

Sonia Morphew Pitt
Sonia Morphew Pitt was fired from her position as director of homeland security planning at MnDOT.
Photo courtesy of MnDOT

(AP) - The Minnesota emergency manager who stayed on the East Coast after the deadly Interstate 35W bridge collapse won't face felony charges.

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner declined to charge Sonia Pitt with felony theft by false representation or felony theft by swindle. Pitt was fired from her $85,000-a-year job as director of homeland security and emergency management at the Minnesota Department of Transportation a year ago.

Pitt waited 10 days before returning after the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse, which killed 13 and injured 145.

MnDOT fired her for unprofessional conduct and misuse of state resources, including unauthorized expenses and travel. A legislative audit found that Pitt improperly billed the state for at least $26,000 in pay and unauthorized travel.

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Gaertner said Friday that an investigation of Pitt's time sheets, cell phone charges, reimbursement requests, mileage and airfare did not yield proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Pitt intended to steal taxpayers' money.

The county's chief prosecutor said state and MnDOT policies were unclear and sometimes conflicted, and Pitt's supervisors routinely approved her work hours and expenses. Pitt often worked more than 40 hours a week, making it difficult to prove unauthorized overtime.

"A bad employee takes advantage of lax supervision to maximize benefits of their job, such as travel upgrades, meals paid, things like that," Gaertner said. "A criminal knows they're not entitled to those benefits and takes them anyway. We didn't have proof of the latter."

Legislative Auditor James Nobles, who referred the case to Gaertner, said he would consider forwarding it to the St. Paul city attorney for potential misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges.

The report from Gaertner's office quoted a MnDOT business manager who said Pitt was the only state employee who upgraded airline seats, which was allowed at the time. Pitt also signed off on her own credit card logs and added legs to trips - leading MnDOT to implement tighter restrictions nicknamed the "Pitt changes."

But the report also cited Paul Larson, deputy state commissioner for labor relations, who said Pitt's e-mail and cell phone records showed she worked seven days a week, sometimes late into the evening, and she had accrued so much vacation she was in danger of losing some if she didn't take it.

Pitt's attorney, John Fabian, did not immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages.

Pitt did not immediately return a message left at her home phone. She told KMSP-TV last week that the bridge collapse "wasn't my catastrophe" and she worked long hours in Washington after the disaster.

After losing her state job, Pitt worked as a transportation security specialist for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from May to July, when she was fired after news reports about her background.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)