Sonia Pitt's office little known

ST. PAUL -- Sonia Pitt became a familiar name as Minnesotans heard allegations that she bilked $26,000 as Minnesota Department of Transportation e-mergency manager, but few know much about her office.

ST. PAUL -- Sonia Pitt became a familiar name as Minnesotans heard allegations that she bilked $26,000 as Minnesota Department of Transportation e-mergency manager, but few know much about her office.

The small office Pitt directed until she was fired last month was not well-known to taxpayers, legislators or even MnDOT officials.

Pitt's controversy brought into public view an office that plans MnDOT's response to disasters. That includes flooding, disease outbreaks and other events such as the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse. While its work could affect people across the state, much of it usually is done behind the scenes.

"Generally, we've always been in the background," said Cathy Clark, Pitt's successor as acting director of emergency management within MnDOT.

Clark said there is greater attention since Pitt "created a spotlight" with the Red Wing resident's alleged inappropriate spending and behavior, including not returning to Minnesota for 10 days after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.


"Now," Clark said, "the positive is we have an opportunity to tell the story."

That story includes accolades and award-winning emergency planning, but also confusion among MnDOT supervisors about the office's role and even scant knowledge of the office among some who approve its funding.

"I don't think that the vast majority of legislators even knew that this division even existed," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

Pitt took on MnDOT's homeland security and emergency management issues in 2003 as states developed detailed disaster-response plans following Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Prior to the attacks, MnDOT, like other state agencies, had emergency management plans but they were not well-coordinated, officials said.

Pitt's job started somewhat informally -- Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau and others said Pitt's job description evolved over time. Early on, she may have been assisted by another MnDOT employee, but since there was no formal office, there were no detailed budgets the first two years, MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender said.

In 2005, MnDOT created an Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management with Pitt as director. The office had a $913,000 budget in 2006. The budget pays for salaries and emergency management training.

The office budget for 2007 was $1.16 million, about 60 percent of which came from federal grants. Its work ranges from developing MnDOT's response to an emergency at the state's two nuclear power plants to documenting the names of local law enforcement officials in each of the department's eight regional districts. It also develops public evacuation plans and considers how the agency would respond if its own normal business operations were disrupted.

Pitt, who as director traveled extensively, and the office received awards and were recognized for MnDOT's emergency planning. All of the employees under Pitt's direction were involved with the response to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, though Pitt was criticized for remaining on the East Coast after the deadly collapse. That decision prompted intense scrutiny into Pitt's taxpayer-funded travel and expenses.


"In spite of all the mischief, there were people that certainly felt there were times she was doing the job and doing it reasonably well," Legislative Auditor James Nobles said of Pitt. Nobles' office issued one of three investigations into Pitt's misuse of taxpayer funds, which resulted in her termination.

Investigators discovered Pitt's own supervisors did not clearly understand what her office did, prompting a high-level meeting earlier this year in which she had to explain the work to MnDOT managers and the state's top disaster-response planner. While that may have been an attempt to "rein in" Pitt, Nobles said, an audit did not reveal concerns about the work done by the five employees Pitt oversaw.

Clark defends the office's work, including its efforts to inform MnDOT employees of the agency's disaster response plans and coordinate with local emergency responders. The office is not undergoing major changes after Pitt's departure, which Clark described as causing "turmoil" and "a lot of organized chaos." However, MnDOT is reviewing the director's role and what is expected of employees if another disaster occurs.

"We have not stopped the work that we have been doing because we've had a major disruption and certainly a very difficult, challenging time from a staff perspective," she said.

The story of MnDOT's emergency management also includes a recent name change.

Officials said Pitt's office's role was unclear, in part because it shared the name of a key office within the Public Safety Department, which is the top state agency on homeland security issues.

"It was confusing to people," said Kris Eide, the state's homeland security and emergency management director.

Nobles said his audit raised questions about whether Pitt intentionally made homeland security issues part of her work, rather than focusing on "more mundane" transportation-related emergency response work such as clearing blocked roadways after a storm.


"There was a point when actually people were a little concerned that Sonia Pitt was too visible and kind of representing herself to be the state's director of homeland security," Nobles said, "and maybe, who knows, whether that was all a cover for some of her travel."

Clark leads what now is just the emergency management section, and said its operations are being looked at "very closely."

"Is it uncomfortable? Absolutely," Clark said. "Is it necessary? Absolutely. I think it goes a step toward restoring the public trust."

Like other aspects of MnDOT, the emergency management section could see more scrutiny in the coming months. Murphy is leading a joint legislative panel that recently hired a law firm to investigate the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse. The probe also will look more broadly at MnDOT's funding and road and bridge safety issues.

Murphy is a leading critic of Molnau, the transportation commissioner and Republican lieutenant governor, but he has praised rank-and-file MnDOT employees. The investigation is not targeting the emergency response planners, Murphy said, but he also warned nothing is off limits.

"If the information comes back and says they did what they were supposed to do, that's great," he said of the emergency management section. "If (the probe) leads to looking in that division, then that's where it leads to."

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