Since last fall, Georgians have been treated to a spectacle from our state Department of Transportation. The rancor in the poisonous relationship between Gov. Sonny Perdue and House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, has never been higher than when the two were fighting over the replacement for former Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl.
Now that Perdue won that fight, his commissioner Gena Abraham is providing regular updates on problems she is "uncovering" at the agency. Perdue is calling press conferences to express his shock and dismay, and calling for a "forensic audit" of DOT programs and spending.
The ongoing drama has put an unusually intense spotlight on a part of state government that affects us more on a day-to-day basis than just about any other, but which seldom receives attention from us taxpayers beyond cursing when we're caught in traffic jams.
Then, like a sharp turn in a soap-opera storyline, love suddenly blooms through the asphalt and the public really starts to pay attention.
Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans announces he's resigning to pursue a romantic relationship with his unofficial inspector-general, Abraham. He says working with the commissioner developed into something more than admiration and friendship. Abraham reportedly attempted to quit her post, but her resignation was refused. For now, both are unmarried. See, at least one part of this sorry tale may have a happy ending. Now back to the main plot:
According to Perdue-Abraham, mismanagement of the DOT has created a $1 billion shortfall in money available to pay for projects already underway or promised for the near future. The agency apparently cannot even account for the number of new projects it has committed to completing, many of them no doubt having been scheduled to fill the agency's political promises quota.
Perdue would have us believe that all of the items that Abraham is reporting to him are shocking, and that he and his new commissioner are the team to clean up everyone else's mess. That may be true for Abraham, but Sonny's got some explaining to do.
Lest we forget, Perdue is now approaching three-quarters of the way through his eight-year administration. Also remember that Linnenkohl, Abraham's immediate predecessor and scapegoat for the financial debacle at the DOT, was a career agency insider who was installed in the top job at Perdue's behest in 2003. Linnenkohl ran the DOT from 2003 to 2007 when the governor decided to back Abraham. In fact, Sonny has had his hand in the DOT since the mid-1990s when he was a top Democrat in the state Senate. He knows as much as anyone how politics controls DOT decision making, and how to use political influence to drive the agency's priorities and spending.
During his tenure in the Senate, Perdue benefited from a land purchase by the DOT. The agency "condemned" about four acres of Perdue's property in Houston County, and paid him $88,790 for the land, which had a fair market value of $18,108 at the time, a premium of more than $70,000.
Since Perdue moved into the governor's mansion, the DOT has been planning or working on massive road expansions in the part of Houston County where Perdue and his family own property, and where Perdue's business associates have been buying his and other property, including the former state wildlife preserve at Oaky Woods. The most interesting part of the DOT's sudden focus on Perdue's hometown of Bonaire is talk that the Fall Line Freeway, originally proposed to run from Columbus to Macon to Augusta, could skip Macon and follow the current State Route 96 - right through Bonaire and past Perdue's property holdings. About a year and a half into his gubernatorial term, Perdue and his sister were able to make a bundle when they sold farmland they inherited from their father to the Stoker Group development company for $4.4 million. The land just happens to be located on State Route 96. I guess that's proof that there's nothing like being in the right place at the right time.
The next time you hear our governor expressing shock about the mismanagement of the DOT's priorities, remember Capt. Renault in 'Casablanca,' who is "shocked" that gambling is going on at Rick's Café. Renault announces that he's closing the place down just as the croupier walks up, hands him money and says "Your winnings, sir."
Appropriate advice for Commissioner Abraham also comes from "Casablanca" when Rick tells Illsa: "Now, you've got to listen to me! You have any idea what you'd have to look forward to if you stayed here?"
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: email@example.com, or Web address: billshipponline.com.