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Bill Shipp - Is DOT really experiencing a change in culture?

The past week has seen new revelations in the ongoing saga of Gena Evans, nee Abraham, the woman whom Gov. Sonny Perdue put in charge of the state Department of Transportation. Perdue pushed Evans for the job supposedly to clean up a deeply troubled agency, which is facing a staggering funding shortfall in excess of $7 billion over the next six years for needed road construction and improvements. According to DOT's own estimate, its expected funding shortfall over the next 25 to 30 years is an almost incomprehensible $51 billion.

Perdue has been touting Evans as a squeaky-clean antidote for the "good ol' boy" corruption and incompetence that has long plagued DOT at levels that are extraordinary even by Georgia government standards. When Evans was embarrassed early in her tenure by revelations that she was dating then-DOT board chairman Mike Evans (to whom she is now married) in violation of the conduct policy that she had herself imposed on DOT employees, Perdue fully backed her. The DOT board considered firing her for her violation of department policy and ultimately issued her a formal reprimand.

Now, Dale Russell, veteran investigative reporter for Fox 5 Atlanta, has uncovered e-mails that raise more questions about Evans' conduct as a state official. Russell reported on Evans' personal e-mail correspondence with men working for contractors doing business with state government agencies that Evans had headed before moving to DOT. Among the problems? Evans' memos were written on state computers and included sexually explicit messages.

Evans defended herself by saying she was a single adult woman at the time the messages were sent, and that they should be of no concern to the DOT board or the taxpayers who pay her salary and buy the computers she used to send the messages. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which long ago fully invested itself in promoting Evans in much the same way Perdue does, backed her up with an editorial saying that the e-mails were irrelevant to her performance as DOT commissioner.

With all due respect to our state's paper of record, its editorial completely misses the point. Russell's story focused on the conflicts of interest created by Evans choosing to carry on close personal relationships with executives at companies with major state construction contracts. In one incident brought to light by Russell's reporting, Evans, who was then head of the agency that oversees state construction projects, began dating a construction company project manager who was overseeing the construction of a major research facility at the University of Georgia. Evans and the project manager reportedly tried to keep their relationship secret from his superiors, and Russell's story raised the question of whether Evans had protected her boyfriend by blocking an investigation of misconduct surrounding the handling of the project.

In another incident, Evans reportedly hired another former boyfriend who had also managed a construction project she oversaw. When questioned by Russell about the matter, she claimed that she had received approval from Perdue's chief financial officer, Tommy Hills, who claims he consulted the then-state inspector general James Sehorn about the matter. Sehorn denies that Hills or anyone else told him about the situation.

The DOT board is apparently set to revisit Evans' conduct soon, and some board members, including David Doss of Rome and Dana Lemon of Jonesboro, believe that her prior actions raise serious questions about her ability to continue as commissioner.

While controversy once again swirls around Evans, DOT operations have ground almost to a halt. In addition to the agency's unresolved budget crisis, few new contracts are being let for needed new road upgrades and repairs. As other states line up to get part of new federal transportation dollars that Congress authorized as part of its attempt to assist strapped state governments and stimulate the sickly economy, Georgia appears unprepared to make its case and has asked for very little in the way of additional federal funding.

Even though Evans' personal conduct continues to raise questions about her ability to effectively lead the troubled DOT, Perdue appears still to support her as commissioner.

While the DOT board formally has the power to remove her, without a green light from Perdue, it is unlikely to take action. Perdue promised to change the culture of state government. If Evans' conduct is part of the culture change, that change has gone very much in the wrong direction.

P.S.: While road construction has slowed to a snail's pace in much of the state, it is progressing nicely in Houston County, home of Gov. Perdue.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net, or Web address: billshipponline.com.