Sewell quits state transportation board

Louis Sewell Jr. a Board of Transportation member and fundraiser for Democratic candidates – including Gov. Mike Easley and gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue – has resigned from the transportation board.

Sewell left the board days after The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Sunday that Sewell steered about $375,000 in state road money to two projects in Jacksonville near property owned by Sewell or his son. The projects went to roads that needed work but also were adjacent to valuable land.

In a news release Thursday, Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett said: “Mr. Sewell has submitted his resignation today. I believe this action is in the best interest of the Board of Transportation, the department, the citizens and Mr. Sewell.”

In a letter of resignation sent to Gov. Mike Easley, Sewell wrote, “Unfortunately I did not follow proper protocol by fully recusing myself from decisions which could be viewed as having an appearance of conflict of interest. I did not have any intentions to place myself or my family to personally benefit from those road improvements. These were important transportation improvement and safety projects for the citizens of Onslow County.”

Tippett said last week that he was not aware of the extent of Sewell's real estate interests near the road work. Hours after a reporter explained Sewell's holdings last week, Tippett said he was forwarding the case to the N.C. State Ethics Commission.

In Thursday's news release announcing the resignation, Tippett included descriptions of the road work in question. The descriptions included the department's justification for the road work. He said that in both cases, the work was initiated by transportation department staff members.

Department records show that Sewell personally signed documents requesting the expenditures of state money for road work.

Sewell or his son had a stake in four properties at the busy Jacksonville intersection of U.S. 17 and Western Boulevard. Tippett said in the news release that none of the work had a direct impact on Sewell's properties.

Sewell had ownership interest in several properties adjacent to the intersection, but none of the improvements were adjacent to any Sewell-related property, according to the release.

According to Onslow County records, all of the properties in which Sewell or his son had a stake were about 300 feet from the center of the intersection.

Sewell was appointed to an at-large seat by Easley. As an at-large member, Sewell was primarily to be responsible for representing the interests of rural North Carolina. The at-large seats were created in 1998 as part of reforms enacted after some board members were found to have been steering road work to projects near their property. Board records show that Sewell has focused much of his energy on Jacksonville, where he lives.

Sewell has referred questions to his attorney, who could not be reached for comment. Sewell has said he was not seeking to benefit himself or his son by requesting the roadwork.

Sewell has also become an issue in the race for governor. Republican nominee Pat McCrory has attacked Perdue over her ties to Sewell, who had planned to host a fundraiser in his home for Perdue this week.

After she said she was unsure whether she would still attend the event, Sewell cancelled the fundraiser. Sewell is the second board member and Perdue fundraiser to quit the board this year. Former board member Thomas Betts of Rocky Mount resigned in January after he sought to raise $20,000 in campaign money from country singer Randy Parton and the others behind the struggling performing arts theater in Roanoke Rapids. Betts had directed $2.5 million in road work to the theater over the previous year.