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Letter alleges DOT fraud; investigation under way

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.”

WildSouth facilitates wildlife meeting

The non-profit grassroots conservation organization WildSouth sponsored a meeting last week to discuss complaints and questions from the public regarding poaching, trespassing and other wildlife-related issues.

The meeting, held in the Harrell Center at Lake Junaluska on Jan. 7, attracted about 30 people including private citizens, members of the North Carolina General Assembly, representatives of the Western North Carolina Sportsman’s Club, representatives from the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, law enforcement personnel, members of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Division of Enforcement and NCWRC biologists.

According to Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South — which has offices in Asheville and Moulton, Ala. — the meeting was organized with the aid of John Edwards of Cashiers, organizer of the annual Mountain Wildlife Days and Wild South’s wildlife outreach coordinator.

Prater said the Wild South had been in contact with enforcement agencies and members of the General Assembly with regards to meeting needs in view of significant budget shortfalls.

Captain Greg Daniels of the NCWRC Division of Enforcement spoke to the group about some of the issues as they related to his department. Daniels said that poaching incidents appeared to be down this fall. “Mother nature did us a big favor,” he said.

Daniels said that the abundant mast crop this year “kept the deer in the woods.” Daniels also said there was a decline in big game hunting this year and felt like that could possibly be attributed to the poor economy.

But Daniels said the big news in the enforcement division was the budget and new leadership in Raleigh.

“The budget is definitely a pressing issue and will require us to take a fresh look at the way we do business,” Daniels said.

He said there would be some streamlining in the hierarchy, cutting some of the administrative positions and putting more officers in the field. Another new move by the division is marking some of their vehicles.

“We’ve spent most of our career hidden. Now we are marking some of our vehicles. We think people want to see their wildlife officers,” Daniels said.

But, he said, it was going to be a tough balancing act with only a couple of agents per county and the need for covert operations in dealing with large-scale poaching.

When one of the attends said he felt it was unacceptable to have three biologists positions unfilled, Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Mars Hill) said there was little chance of resolving that problem right now.

“That $3.7 billion (budget) shortfall is real. There are going to be painful cuts, filling positions is not likely,” Rep. Rapp said.


Meeting undertow

A strong contingent of hunters present felt that management or, in their minds, mismanagement of North Carolina’s national forest lands — particularly the absence of logging — was perhaps the largest bane to North Carolina’s wildlife.

In a short interview, Steve Henson, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, said it was impossible to talk about wildlife issues in the state without talking about the management of North Carolina’s national forests. He said that the dramatic decline of timber harvesting in the national forests, brought about by litigation from environmental organizations, was a major problem.

“It’s a big issue,” he said, “it’s been scientifically documented that the lack of early successional habitat is responsible for a decline in wildlife populations.”

Henson said Wild South had ulterior motives for calling the meeting. He said that with the Forest Service plan revision coming up in a year or so that Wild South was trying to position itself to be in a place to say they speak for the sportsmen of North Carolina.

“They don’t speak for me,” Henson said.

In an interview after the meeting, Prater flatly denied the allegations. “I can assure you and, hopefully, assure the public that Wild South is not looking to lead the Forest Service in any direction. We have worked with the Forest Service and the public for 20 years to help see that the national forests are managed in the best interest of everyone.

“We’re all about empowering people to make wise decisions. If I had my druthers, I would rather have not seen the discussion go in that direction. National Forest Service issues are so complicated. There’s not much we can do but try and work with the Forest Service in a collaborative way.”

Prater said he had hoped to stay focused on enforcement, education and human/wildlife conflict issues, but noted that because the meeting was public and habitat is a legitimate concern that he felt obligated “to provide people the opportunity to be heard.”

John Edwards said that the majority of Americans are non-hunters and that he believes there needs to be a forum where hunters and other wildlife advocates can have meaningful discussions about wildlife issues from different perspectives and all sides can be heard.


How do you feel?

Snow and icy conditions last kept a lot of people away from the meeting sponsored by Wild South, and that to try and include input from those people and other interested parties Wild South has created a survey and will use the information gleaned from the survey to plan its next meeting. To find out more about Wild South and/or WNC Wildlife Advocates, or to fill out the survey, visit www.wildsouth.org.

N.C. parks prove popular with visitors

More than a quarter million visitors to North Carolina state parks used a new reservations system in its first full year of operation, with most campers preferring short visits to state parks near their homes, according to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

By far, the most popular park for camping and picnicking by reservation was Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, which logged 14,124 reservations during the year ending July 30. It was followed by Kerr Lake State Recreation Area (6,162) and Hanging Rock (5,256), Stone Mountain (5,062) and Carolina Beach (4,410) state parks.

The year-end reservations report showed that the state parks system’s online and call center-based system placed 61,484 reservations for campsites, picnic shelters and other amenities.

“The reservations system has been very popular, and we anticipated an important byproduct would be detailed information about our visitors and how they use the parks,” said Lewis Ledford, state parks director. “Over time, that will help us improve visitor service and gain more insight into how state parks contribute to local economies.”

The state parks attracted visitors from 16 nations during the year with Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom contributing the most foreign visitors, but reservations originated in far-flung locations such as Australia, Namibia and Sweden. North Carolinians, of course, were the most frequent visitors, and most state park campgrounds were populated by people from nearby towns, although there were exceptions. For instance, Hammocks Beach and Pilot Mountain state parks most often had campers from the Triangle area. Visitors from Charlotte most often filled Lake James, Morrow Mountain, New River and Stone Mountain state parks.

Reservations for campsites peaked in the months of April, May and June with a smaller but noticeable spike during August. The typical camping trip involved three people staying two nights on a weekend. In total, 123,149 nights of camping were reserved.

State park visitors were most comfortable making reservations in person at a state park (47.6 percent), while 35.9 percent of the reservations were made online and 16.5 percent were made through a call center. Visitors can camp without a reservation if a site is available when they arrive. Reservations can be made up to 48 hours in advance, online at www.ncparks.gov or by calling toll-free 1.877.7 CAMP NC (722.6762).

Ballot measure would bar felons from serving as sheriff

After six felons in North Carolina ran for sheriff during the May primaries, legislators decided it was time to close that particular legal loophole.

This November, voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would put a stop to convicted felons being able to hold a county’s top law enforcement post. State representatives this summer unanimously signed on to that amendment, forged in the state Senate. A majority of voters must now vote “yes” Nov. 2 for the constitution to actually be changed.

“I don’t believe any sheriff should have any criminal record — whether felony or misdemeanor,” Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland said this week. “No criminal background, at all.”

Currently, once they’ve served their court-ordered punishments and their citizenship rights have been returned, convicted felons can legally run for office, though they cannot carry a firearm. None of the primary candidates who ran for office were actually elected sheriff.

Still, the situation served to underscore the issue’s importance, said Eddie Caldwell of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association.

“It became a little less academic and a little more practical,” Caldwell said.

A bill pushed last year by the association did not pass because of procedural problems. Namely, there was concern that legislators would try to piggyback pet projects on the bill.

This time, however, state leaders agreed not to do that, which facilitated passage of the proposed constitutional change, Caldwell said.

Tough budget facing legislature as session begins

The state legislative session began in Raleigh this week with the big issue being the budget during tough economic times.

The current fiscal year budget of $21.35 billion is expected to have a shortfall of $2 billion, and Gov. Beverly Perdue has asked state agencies, colleges and universities to cut back on spending. For the first half of the fiscal year revenue is running $625 million below what was expected.

During the session the legislature also has to develop budgets for 2009-2010, which begins July 1, and 2010-2011.

The revenue picture is bleak as the recession is expected to continue into 2010. The state is collecting less in sales and income taxes as well as corporate and franchise taxes. Raising the sales tax and increasing the taxes on alcohol and gasoline could generate additional revenue, noted Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva.

According to the Associated Press, the state also has a $780 million rainy day fund that could possibly be tapped. Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said the legislature will have to determine what are priorities when developing the budget, and he said education and job creation are his.

Local legislators are also waiting to see what effect President Barack Obama’s proposed $825 billion stimulus plan will have on North Carolina.

“I’m hoping for solid revenue sharing from the federal side to get us through,” Queen said.

The state’s unemployment rate increased to 8.7 percent in December, the highest since June 1983 when the rate was 9 percent.

“Layoffs continue to hamper many job sectors throughout the state,” Employment Security Commission Chairman Moses Carey Jr. said in a news release.

The unemployment rate a year ago was 4.7 percent.

In December there were 396,846 people unemployed in North Carolina. The national unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in December.

The downward trend in employment in the state is expected to persist for most, if not all, of 2009, and maybe into 2010, according to a report from the Fiscal Research Division of the state Legislature.

Long-term fix must be found for state’s mental health care woes

Perhaps it is going to take a complete fracturing of the mental health system before policymakers finally realize that North Carolina needs more inpatient facilities to treat patients who are a danger to themselves and society. Well, if it’s a total breakdown they’re waiting for, things are getting perilously close.

Coal, energy needs at center of first lieutenant governor debate

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Coal-fired power plants and renewable energies took center stage as topics at last Saturday’s lieutenant governor’s debate in Asheville.

The state of mental health care: A fractured system is in danger of breaking down completely, leaving officials wondering — how did it get this bad?

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Patricia Frisbee Meyer’s son needed help.

The mental illness he had battled since childhood stayed mostly under control, but Meyer knew the onset of a bad episode when she saw it. Meyer, along with her husband, took her son to the emergency room at Haywood Regional Medical Center that Sunday — beginning a saga in which her son was restrained for nearly 48 hours before getting the care he desperately needed.

State says foul on school bond referendum support

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

After investigating the actions of the Macon County School Board for the past two months, officials at the North Carolina State Board of Elections have determined that the school district violated two campaign finance statutes.

Restaurant owners scramble to comply with mandatory recycling law

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Landfills in North Carolina should become a lot emptier due to a new law requiring nearly 8,000 restaurants to start recycling alcoholic beverage containers.

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