Legislative panel approves transportation probe

ST. PAUL - A key legislative committee today approved what was described as a Watergate-like investigation of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

ST. PAUL - A key legislative committee today approved what was described as a Watergate-like investigation of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

On a split vote, the Senate Rules Committee approved giving $250,000 to the probe. The House is expected to follow suit with a like amount.

The $500,000 will go to a committee established to investigate the Aug. 1 Interstate 35W Minneapolis bridge collapse, but Sen. Steve Murphy said the investigation will go well beyond the collapse. Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said the probe will look into transportation funding and general bridge and road safety concerns.

Murphy, the Senate's transportation chairman, said he is not confident in a federal inquiry because a contract the Pawlenty administration has with a private firm allows Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, also the state transportation commissioner, to be involved with the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation. He said it is not proper for a political elected official to be part of the NTSB investigation.

Other than the legislative committee investigation, three others are concentrating on the bridge collapse. The committee that Murphy co-chairs with Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, is mounting the only probe going beyond the collapse.


Rules Committee Republicans opposed Murphy's proposal to fund a new investigation.

"It certainly looks to me like we are on a political witch hunt out to get the commissioner of transportation," Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said. "It does seem to us there is a fourth investigation piling on top of others."

Senjem said he sees no need for a new investigation in light of the federal one, another ordered by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a third being conducted by the legislative auditor.

However, Murphy said it appears the federal probe has become political since it involves Molnau and the federal transportation secretary already has said MnDOT's inspection and maintenance were not at fault.

"The lieutenant governor has her people working side by side with the NTSB," Murphy said.

Murphy is a frequent Molnau critic.

The full federal probe is expected to take more than a year to complete.

Murphy did not emphasize to the Rules Committee that the $500,000 - used to hire a law firm to run the investigation - would be for studying things other than the collapse. However, in answering reporters' questions later he said the investigation will involve many other aspects of MnDOT operations.


Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said he thinks the Legislature has a duty to investigate the collapse.

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, compared the bridge committee's investigation to the federal Watergate investigations of the 1970s, saying multiple probes each investigated different aspects of the controversy.

The Rules Committee vote was by voice, but it appeared Democrats favored funding the investigation and Republicans opposed it.

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