DOT spent $67,000 on conference

July 28, 2009 9:00:00 PM PDT
In February, Eyewitness News went undercover inside a North Carolina Department of Transportation conference at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Wilmington.We took a look after getting a tip from a state worker.

"I am sick over this mis-use of dollars as we anticipate layoffs, more budget cuts, etc," wrote the employee.

Click here to read about the original investigation

We got a lot of feedback about the story. Taxpayers liked it, but DOT engineers did not.

"I got a lot of angry emails from these engineers, why were they so upset with our story?" investigative reporter Steve Daniels asked DOT Chief Operating Officer Jim Trogdon.

"We can't criticize those that are questioning decisions. We must be responsive to those criticisms and say 'Here's the decision. Here's why we believe it's right and we'll stand behind this, but we will not punish those who ask questions," he responded.

After the DOT held its two conferences in Wilmington, we filed a public records request and received hundreds of pages of documents.

We crunched the numbers and found the conferences cost more than we were initially told. The DOT told us the cost to taxpayers would be $52,000. But, we found it cost $67,000 or $15,000 more.

Trogdon says part of the conference helped engineers maintain their professional certification.

"We believe that that investment ... was well worth it in order to maintain the safety and professional work force here that can provide the safety through our transportation system that the public demands," he said.

Eyewitness News also discovered an intriguing email in the pile of documents. It's a message from the DOT to a sales manager at the Hilton that said: "Any word on meal options? ... We are working on cutting our budget down."

"We can hide it in room rental like in years past," the Hilton sales manager replied.

"Does it concern you that there would be a conversation between someone at the dot and a vendor about hiding costs?" Daniels asked Trogdon.

"If that was an attempt to deceive, it would be of concern," he replied.

The general manager at the Hilton sent us a statement saying the sales manager "used a poor choice of words".

"[He] joined the team last fall and has no basis to comment on prior years. He should have used the word 'include' instead of 'hide' to describe the standard industry practice for offsetting contracted food and beverage shortfalls by increasing meeting room rental fees," said the manager.

We found something else in the hotel bill that's raising questions.

The DOT allowed vendors who do business with the state to pay to pitch their products and services at the conference. The vendors wound up paying almost half of the hotel bill. The bill would've cost the state $85,000, but the vendors kicked in $39,000.

"It's an educational process for the vendors to our workforce and that's the way we look at it," Trogdon explained.

"Some people might think that is an ethical consideration," said Daniels.

"The conference was reviewed several years ago by our Attorney General's office and this met the requirements for not establishing some bias in participating with our work," said Trogdon.

Frank Perry has a different view. He's with the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service in Raleigh and used to be the director of education at the North Carolina Ethics Commission.

"I think that there's an appearance of impropriety if those individuals are seeking to do business with the state," he offered. "There seems to be something contrary to ethical standards with respect to that arrangement."

Trogdon doesn't think it's a conflict because the state only hires contractors who submit the lowest bid. And he says the DOT is now re-thinking conferences this - finding new ways to get its engineers together.

"Many times we can do it through web training, conference calls and we're doing those today," he explained.

We also found an e-mail in the documents from a DOT district engineer who said his engineers would prefer not to go to the conference if it meant they could keep their temporary workers.

1,200 have been laid-off.


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