Official steered road money near his land

A state Board of Transportation member from Jacksonville steered roughly $375,000 in public money to road improvements adjacent to properties that he co-owned at the time.

In 2004 and 2005, board member Louis Sewell Jr. recommended or voted to spend $200,000 in state money to improve a busy commercial intersection where he or his son, along with business partners, were selling two properties at more than $1 million each. He also asked a state senator to provide another $125,000 for the intersection improvements from a DOT discretionary fund.

In 2006, Sewell recommended and voted for $50,000 in state money to patch a section of road on the outskirts of Jacksonville where he and business partners own a 250-acre parcel. The land is now for sale.

State law requires members of the transportation board to refrain from seeking money for projects that might directly benefit them. Minutes of board meetings do not show Sewell mentioning his financial interests in those two areas of Jacksonville. Twice, he voted for some of the funding for the road improvements.

Sewell, 73, was a fundraiser for Gov. Mike Easley, who named him to the transportation board.

“All I try to do is help the people of Jacksonville and North Carolina,” Sewell said before a recent board meeting. He said any money he has recommended and approved for road projects has been in the public interest.

Sewell followed up with a letter, sent by his lawyer, in which Sewell wrote that he had sought the money at U.S. 17 and Western Boulevard to improve safety at an intersection widely considered the area's busiest. He said the patching at Ramsey Road on the northern outskirts of Jacksonville aided a new housing development that includes an elementary school.

State Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett said Friday that he would forward information about the transactions to the State Ethics Commission for an investigation.

In March 2004, Sewell recommended $115,000 in state money to add and extend turn lanes, move overhead signs and add concrete medians at the intersection of U.S. 17 and Western Boulevard. It was the first of three recommendations he made for state money in 2004 and 2005 at the intersection for a total of $327,000.

Records show Sewell was trying to upgrade the intersection while he and his partners were developing a parcel near one corner, and a son and his partners were developing a parcel at another corner.

Sewell and his business partners subdivided a parcel about 300 feet west of the intersection into four lots that are now home to a medical clinic and a Texas Roadhouse restaurant. Sewell and his partners paid $603,000 for the land in 1999 and sold three of the four subdivided parcels for a total of $1.7 million over a year-long period beginning in September 2004. That's six months after he began requesting DOT money for improvements.

Sewell's son, Billy, and his partners paid $510,000 in September 2003 for a parcel at the northeast corner and sold it for $1.1 million in October 2004. That's seven months after Louis Sewell began requesting money for the improvements.

Today, Sewell continues to co-own land leased to an Outback Steakhouse about 300 feet north of the intersection. Billy Sewell co-owns the Golden Corral restaurant about 300 feet east of the intersection.

In early 2006, Louis Sewell recommended $50,000 to patch a 2-mile stretch of Ramsey Road on the northern outskirts of Jacksonville.

The public purpose was to fix the two-lane road in front of a new school added as part of a growing subdivision called Carolina Forest, according to state records. Also along the repaired section is a 250-acre tract owned by another Sewell partnership. The land is assessed at $3.2 million and is up for sale. Sewell and his partners bought the land in 1996 as part of a 440-acre parcel for $825,000, Onslow County property records show.

Sewell's attorney, J. Dewey Edwards Jr., said Sewell acknowledges he should have let another board member handle requests for road work that might have a direct effect on his real estate holdings.

Sewell sits on the Jacksonville Transportation Advisory Committee, a regional transportation board. At its meetings, minutes show, he avoided advocating road work near his property – in contrast to his actions on the transportation board in Raleigh.

The DOT's ethics policy, which applies to board members, says employees shall not “use or attempt to use his or her position with the NCDOT to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself, herself or others.”

Sewell has tried to avoid the appearance of conflicts in several other projects before the state board. Board members are required to fill out a form when they abstain from a vote. A public records request of all of Sewell's abstentions produced eight votes since 2005 from which Sewell abstained.

Sewell has been an active political fundraiser. An internal campaign document from Easley's first campaign for governor in 2000 shows that Sewell and others led an effort to raise $125,000. Shortly after the election, Easley appointed Sewell to a board seat, which has long been a perk governors bestow on major fundraisers.

Today, Sewell is a fundraiser for Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic nominee for governor. She championed the 1998 legislation meant to reform the transportation board.

Sewell's appointment has exposed weaknesses in those reforms, which were adopted after some board members were found to have been obtaining money for projects that benefited their business interests. The reforms required future members to disclose their fundraising, but a legal interpretation requested by Easley narrowed the reach of the reporting. The opinion said the disclosure requirement was limited to campaign checks and cash collected in hand. Sewell and another appointee who held fundraisers or solicited contributors – but didn't actually hold the money – reported no fundraising.

Another reform intended to bring more balance to the board called for at least three appointees who are not from the governor's political party. In March 2001, shortly after Easley announced his appointees for the board, Sewell switched from unaffiliated to the Republican Party. An Easley spokeswoman said the governor thought Sewell had always been a Republican.

Onslow County Republicans say Sewell hasn't been active in the party, and in 2004, he argued against an effort to name a bridge across the New River after former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

Instead, part of the highway is named for Reagan. Several months later, local officials came up with another honoree for the bridge: Sewell himself.