This month brought the 40th anniversary of Watergate, a scandal that not only toppled a U.S. president but changed the way the media and citizens perceive public officials. We assume the worst from our representatives now in ways big and small. Too often, they live down to those expectations.
On Tuesday, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that Gov. Bev Perdues staff altered a pair of letters from Jim Trogdon, the chief operating officer of the Department of Transportation, before those letters were sent to legislators last week. The edited letters urged that funding for two major N.C. road projects be included in the 2013 state budget, a sentiment Trogdon didnt share.
Were the letters yet another case of sneaky politics in Raleigh the kind of episode that has become dispiritingly familiar to North Carolinians? Perhaps not the way you might think.
The letters were initially drafted by Trogdon to two N.C. lawmakers, at the request of Perdues office, to address funding for the Garden Parkway and Mid-Currituck Bridge. In his version, Trogdon noted a previous memo explaining that the DOT wasnt seeking money for the toll road projects in 2013 because of impending litigation surrounding them.
Perdues staffers, with her apparent approval, added a sentence last Thursday to each letter saying that part of the funding was needed now to ensure that the projects could start as soon as possible.
Such changes are not uncommon. Letters and statements from public officials are often the product of collaboration sometimes, officials dont know what theyre saying until an aide presents an almost-finished product to approve. (Thats why journalists prefer the non-scripted quotes that come from live conversations.)
In the DOT letters, however, the change was something Trogdon wouldnt have said. By the time he realized that later Thursday, one of his deputies had signed off on the revisions, and the letters were on their way to lawmakers. Trogdon immediately disavowed them.
A Perdue spokesman says the episode was an honest miscommunication. Trogdon publicly, at least is giving the governor the benefit of the doubt. Were inclined to agree. If Perdues office was trying to pull one over on Trogdon, it probably wouldnt have hand delivered the letter to his deputy for approval and a signature. The alterations were ham-handed and inaccurate, for sure, but we doubt the governor was being sneaky about it.
Still, questions remain. Why is Perdue so intent on keeping money flowing to the two major road projects, including the Garden Parkway in Gaston County? Were troubled that current and former public officials, including former senator Robert Pittenger, have personal financial interest in the toll projects. Two legislators with such interests, Republican Rep. William Current of Gastonia and Democratic Sen. Stan White of Dare County, were the recipients of Trogdons letters.
Weve long been skeptical in this space about the merits of the Garden Parkway, a toll road that was ordered up by lawmakers before any federal impact analysis was done. State projections eventually showed the $1 billion road wont relieve congestion or create jobs, as legislators promised.
So who will the road benefit? While Republicans gleefully tap into our cynicism and call for investigations into the letters this week, they should be asking why the governor and lawmakers are so attentive to a road project thats good for one thing: padding the bottom lines of investors, including some of their own.