Audit: Pitt, MnDOT used ‘poor judgment’

.ST. PAUL (AP) – The absence of a Minnesota Department of Transportation emergency manager in the hours and days following the Minneapolis bridge collapse led to confusion over who was in charge of the agency’s response, a new report says.

The report Wednesday from the legislative auditor also found that Sonia Morphew Pitt, who was fired earlier this month as director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for MnDOT, improperly billed the state for at least $26,000 in unauthorized expenses and improper pay.

The case will now be examined for possible criminal prosecution.

Pitt was at a conference in Boston when the bridge collapsed on Aug. 1. She stayed on the East Coast for almost two weeks more.

In the auditor’s report, both MnDOT and Pitt come under fire: Pitt for racking up excessive expenses and the agency for not adequately supervising her.

The auditor’s criticism went beyond insufficient accounting controls that let Pitt’s expenses pass, and addressed her absence after the bridge catastrophe. The audit cited an unidentified senior MnDOT official as saying Pitt showed “poor judgment” in not returning to Minnesota as soon as the bridge fell.

“However, MnDOT officials shared in that poor judgment by not adequately fulfilling their supervisory responsibilities,” the report said.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said Pitt’s absence defied common sense, noting that other employees voluntarily interrupted vacations to pitch in.

An internal MnDOT investigation released earlier this month alleged that a personal relationship between Pitt and a Federal Highway Administration manager in Washington took precedence over her Minnesota duties.

According to documents released as part of MnDOT’s internal review, Pitt told investigators she helped manage the bridge response while in Boston and Washington via phone and e-mail. She said her supervisor never demanded that she return to Minnesota.

Pitt hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press, including a phone message Wednesday. Her attorney didn’t immediately respond to messages.

MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau responded in a letter attached to the audit that new expense controls were being put in place.

“Ms. Pitt clearly violated the trust we place in MnDOT employees,” she wrote. “We are disappointed in this unfortunate set of circumstances, but we feel these misuses are not widespread.”

The audit provided new ammunition for Molnau’s critics. Many lawmakers have urged her to step aside since the bridge collapse, saying she has tried to run her department on the cheap.

“The findings raise fresh doubts about the ability of those in charge to handle the challenges facing MnDOT,” said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Democrat. She urged Gov. Tim Pawlenty again to replace Molnau.