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Wednesday, 12 January 2011 21:05

Letter alleges DOT fraud; investigation under way

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An anonymous letter alleging corruption — including bribery, embezzlement, overbilling and theft of state materials — among contractors hired to do roadside maintenance for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Haywood County has been widely circulated in recent weeks.

County commissioners, law enforcement, state politicians, media outlets and the DOT itself received copies. While the letter isn’t signed, the allegations are detailed and specific — specific enough that it has prompted the DOT to conduct an internal investigation.

“They are some serious accusations that have been made,” said Joel Sezter, head of the DOT for a 10-county area that includes Haywood.

When Setzer got a copy of the letter in late December, he assigned a staff person from his own office to start an internal investigation. But Setzer’s boss has since taken charge of the inquiry, and it is now being orchestrated out of the Raleigh office.

Terry Gibson, the State Highway Administrator in Raleigh, has pledged to get to the bottom of the accusations.

“The allegations do concern us very much. We will not stop until we are sure things are running like they ought to out there,” Gibson said. “We don’t want to hurt anyone that is innocent, but if someone is doing something that is not right we want to deal with it.”

Gibson said he assigned his Chief Engineer John Nance, essentially the second in command over the DOT, to spearhead the investigation. But he has also brought in the Inspector General for the highway department, which acts as an autonomous review body.

“We asked them to make sure it is an independent look,” Gibson said.

Setzer would not speculate on who wrote the letter. But whoever it was has a working knowledge of DOT maintenance operations. The letter mentions the names of several DOT employees and contractors, as well as specific contracts and purchases.

Gibson said chasing down claims in anonymous letters can sometimes be difficult since there is no original source to interview.

But, “This one is so specific that it should help us try to determine the validity,” Gibson said.

How aggressive DOT will be with its internal investigation remains to be seen. However, ignoring the letter — particularly since it was so widely disseminated — would have been difficult.

The letter was sent to all five Haywood County commissioners, who in turn passed it to District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.

“We don’t have the authority to do a criminal investigation as a county board. That’s a law enforcement issue. If they deem it necessary for a law enforcement investigation, that is their decision,” County Manager Marty Stamey said.

Bonfoey, in turn, passed the letter on to Sherriff Bobby Suttles.

“I sent it along to the sheriff for him to act appropriately,” Bonfoey said.

Bonfoey declined to comment on why he sent it to the sheriff rather than the SBI, which would be better equipped to handle an investigation into possible public corruption.

Sheriff Suttles said an investigation of a state agency like the DOT would have to be done at the state level, presumably the SBI, and not his office.

“I don’t see an investigation from the sheriff’s office on it at this time,” Suttles said.

Beside, since the letter was anonymous, there is no clear starting place, Suttles said.

“It doesn’t give you too much to go on,” Suttles said.

Setzer said he won’t hesitate to call for a criminal investigation by the SBI if his agency finds the allegations have any merit.

“If any laws were broken then I will be making a reference to the SBI, but I don’t if they have been yet or not,” Setzer said. “Right now it is hard to know what is accurate and what is inaccurate in that letter, and I don’t want to speculate.”

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