The Minnesota Department of Transportation's head of emergency management was attending a Harvard University program on terrorist attacks and natural disasters when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1.
Instead of rushing back to help coordinate the response, Sonia Kay Morphew Pitt stayed at Harvard for another two days and then spent eight days in Washington.
Now she's on leave while the agency investigates her work schedule and travel at taxpayers' expense.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reviewed Pitt's travel records, employee expense reports and time sheets, finding that she made frequent out-of-state trips and didn't always fully account for her time while traveling.
Travel records showed that Pitt flew to Washington, D.C., on July 26 and on to Cambridge, Mass., on July 31 for the Harvard program for government officials in charge of preparing for and responding to disasters. Pitt returned to Washington on Aug. 3 and went back to Minnesota on Aug. 11, the newspaper reported in its Saturday editions.
The request and authorization form she filed for the trip cited "group project work in DC" and an expense report listed "training" for each weekday she spent in Washington. None of the records showed any vacation time taken. Pitt is paid $40.76 an hour -- roughly $85,000 a year.
Pitt, the director of MnDOT'S Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, didn't immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press on Monday. MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender said Pitt wasn't speaking with media.
Kender confirmed that Pitt is on leave and a complaint against her is open. She said Pitt directed her office's response to the bridge collapse from out of state.
Pitt's responsibilities include being the agency's contact with emergency responders during disasters. She oversees five employees with an office budget of $5.4 million in 2005, the most recent figure available. Part of the money comes from the federal government.
She was missing from daily meetings at the state Emergency Operations Center where rescue and recovery efforts were coordinated after the bridge collapse, which killed 13. John Kerr, deputy director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management at the state Department of Public Safety, said Pitt would have been welcome at the meetings and that she worked at the center at least once during the response to flooding in southeastern Minnesota.
The records show Pitt scheduling 17 out-of-state business trips totaling at least $26,400 since July 2006, including eight days of crisis communications training slated for this week in Maryland. She also added legs to her trips before arriving at business destinations, including stopping in Washington on her way to Harvard in March and a side trip to Las Vegas from a business trip to Palm Springs, Calif., in June.
Pitt was hired in 2001, when her position was created by former MnDOT senior executive Marthand Nookala. She had worked on publicity and communications for MnDOT and other state agencies. Cathy Clark, a former television news reporter who works in Pitt's office, said she has been named acting director of the office.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)