Scrutiny mounts for MnDOT, official agency fired

ST. PAUL -- The state's former transportation emergency management director could face criminal charges after a government audit found she misused $26,000 in taxpayer funds.

ST. PAUL -- The state's former transportation emergency management director could face criminal charges after a government audit found she misused $26,000 in taxpayer funds.

The audit also found she was not properly supervised.

Sonia Morphew Pitt of Red Wing incurred more than $11,500 in "unauthorized, unreasonable or inappropriate expenses" and charged the state for $14,682 for work time that should have been recorded as personal leave, according to the report of Pitt's actions over a two-year period ending this fall.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles provided the attorney general and Ramsey County attorney information about Pitt so they could pursue criminal or civil action if they wish.

Nobles called Pitt's actions "a clear pattern of abuse," but he also faulted the Minnesota Department of Transportation for poor oversight and allowing Pitt to inappropriately spend taxpayer money in part because MnDOT officials considered her "a difficult person to manage."


"It should have been caught," Nobles told a legislative commission about Pitt's actions. "It should have been stopped. It wasn't."

Pitt was fired Nov. 9 after MnDOT officials investigated her alleged misuse of state and federal funds and because she did not return to Minnesota for 10 days after the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse, though her job involved disaster response. Pitt had extended a work-related trip to the East Coast for personal reasons -- one of several alleged violations of state travel guidelines highlighted in the report.

Besides Pitt, the audit is critical of the department, which is under the direction of Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau.

The audit says MnDOT employees described Pitt as "aggressive" and "belligerent." She was allowed to incur unauthorized expenses, make costly changes to her travel plans and increase the minutes allowed on her state-issued mobile telephone.

Instead, Nobles said, MnDOT managers should have better monitored Pitt's activity and protected public funds.

"People were more willing to stay away from Ms. Pitt than they should have been," he told lawmakers.

Pitt turned down an offer to meet with auditors to discuss the report before it was released. She did not testify at the Legislative Audit Commission's Wednesday meeting and has not responded to reporters' calls.

Deputy MnDOT Commissioner Lisa Freese said the agency agrees with the audit findings and is taking immediate steps to prevent abuse of taxpayer funds through expense payments and state travel.


Rep. Aaron Peterson, a Legislative Audit Commission member, wondered whether Molnau personally requested that Pitt return to Minnesota shortly after the bridge collapse. Nobles said nobody in the agency asked Pitt to return.

"The commissioner failed to get this employee back," Peterson, DFL-Appleton, said.

In a written response to the audit, Molnau said violations like Pitt is alleged to have committed "are not widespread in the department."

Nobles was not that certain. He said his office will further review MnDOT policies in the coming months.

"Sonia Pitt may have been an exception," he said. "We hope so. We're not sure."

Nobles' report breaks down the $11,541 of funds Pitt allegedly misused into several categories, including mobile phone expenses, inflated mileage reimbursement and meal and hotel costs. The report says Pitt made unauthorized airline flight upgrades and changed her work-related air travel to accommodate personal trips.

The costs Pitt incurred were primarily funded by federal grants, but were not allowable under the grant agreements, the audit said.

The legislative auditor's investigation looked at Pitt's travel and other state-paid expenses from July 1, 2005, to Sept. 11, 2007, when MnDOT placed her on an investigatory leave of absence.


Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said her staff will meet with Nobles and expects to receive further paperwork before determining whether to pursue criminal charges. She said there is no timeline for considering a criminal case against Pitt.

"We'll try to act as quickly as possible," Gaertner said. "Whenever you have a public employee, a public figure involved, whenever there's public funds involved, we want to act as quickly as we can but still be responsible about a review."

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