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Lawmakers launch 'transportationgate' investigation at MnDOT

A Minneapolis-based law firm will lead what is described as a Watergate-like investigation into the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"We need people who are highly skilled in the art of extracting information," Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, told the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday before it voted along party lines to approve the request.

The committee gave $250,000 to the probe, which will be added to a like amount from the House.

The $500,000 will go to Gray Plant Mooty law firm, which once employed Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to gather documents and other information for a House-Senate committee probing the Aug. 1 Interstate 35W Minneapolis bridge collapse. However, Murphy, the Senate transportation chairman, said that the investigation will go well beyond the collapse, looking into transportation funding and general bridge and road safety concerns.

MnDOT officials pledged to cooperate with the House-Senate investigation.

"They have every right to look into any matters in state government that they desire," MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender said.

Senate Finance chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, compared the investigation to those surrounding the Watergate Hotel break-in by President Richard Nixon supporters.

Cohen said Watergate involved several investigations, and the bridge collapse deserves the same. Three other bridge probes are limited to why it collapsed.

Questions Cohen, Murphy and others raised about "transportationgate" resembled those heard during the 1970s' Watergate inquiry, such as "who knew what and when did they know it?"

"The other investigations are looking into the technical reasons for why the bridge failed," Rep. Bernie Lieder said. "We want to look at the decisions about the bridge prior to the failure, what information MnDOT had about the bridge and what was done with that information, as well as review how information about the safety of other bridges is handled."

The committee that Murphy co-chairs with Lieder, DFL-Crookston, is mounting the only probe going beyond the collapse.

A preliminary Gray Plant Mooty report is due in March, with a second in September.

The Rules Committee voice vote was not recorded, but it appeared Democrats favored funding the investigation and Republicans opposed it.

Murphy said he is not confident in a federal inquiry because a $2-million contract the Pawlenty administration has with a private firm allows Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, also the state transportation commissioner, to be involved with the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation. He said it is not proper for a political elected official to be part of the NTSB investigation.

"The lieutenant governor has her people working side by side with the NTSB," Murphy said.

Murphy is a frequent Molnau critic.

But Kender said Molnau is not influencing the federal probe.

"This is the NTSB's investigation," Kender said.

MnDOT provides NTSB information whenever it requests any, she added, and the federal agency took the step of combining the state's private investigation with its own.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who appointed Molnau to the transportation post, said he sees no need for another investigation, saying it would be a duplication. He also indicated it appears Democrats were making political hay out of a tragedy.

"It doesn't seem a very wise use of tax dollars," he said.

Republicans defended the Pawlenty administration.

"It certainly looks to me like we are on a political witch hunt out to get the commissioner of transportation," Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said. "It does seem to us there is a fourth investigation piling on top of others."

The federal bridge collapse probe is expected to take more than a year to complete.

Murphy said Gray Plant Mooty, the oldest Minneapolis law firm, was picked because its members give to both Democratic and Republican campaigns. Most of the money has gone to Democrats, but Pawlenty was among Republicans to get contributions.

Murphy said the bridge committee asked one of the firm's 160 lawyers not to take part in the investigation because of his political connections.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Legislature has a duty to investigate the collapse.

Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, countered that there is no need to fund this new investigation until the other three are completed. Cohen, however, said that the Legislature has no control over the NTSB and Pawlenty administration probes.

Pogemiller said Murphy could ask lawmakers for more money if $500,000 is not enough.

Don Davis writes for Forum Communications Co., owner of the Lake County News-Chronicle.