'Have they heard of Google?' a dismayed Klobuchar wonders
By Jason Hoppin, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Top elected officials want to know how the nation's transportation security agency hired a disgraced former Minnesota emergency manager.
Sonia Pitt, 44, was fired for the second time in less than a year Thursday after an internal investigation by the Transportation Security Administration. The agency hired her a little more than a week after a state arbitrator upheld her dismissal from the Minnesota Department of Transportation for failing to return to the state after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and misusing state resources.
She was MnDOT's top emergency management official at the time of the Aug. 1, 2007, disaster but did not return from an East Coast trip until 10 days later.
The TSA said this week it had been aware of "issues" surrounding Pitt's MnDOT employment and began investigating how she was hired May 25 at $90,000 a year. It said it was looking into whether the agency knew of her history with MnDOT at the time.
"Have they heard of Google?" asked an incredulous U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the hiring was "a very strange decision."
Minnesota Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-North Branch, has previously called on Congress to look into whether Pitt's hiring was an act of "patronage or partisanship."
Klobuchar has asked the TSA, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, about the circumstances of Pitt's hiring. She said she would wait for a reply before weighing further action.
In a letter, Klobuchar asked:Whether TSA knew of Pitt's history with MnDOT when it hired her.
-If TSA didn't know, why not? And what actions are being taken to strengthen background checks of prospective employees?
-If TSA knew, why did it hire her? And is there evidence that politics or cronyism played a role in the decision?
"Of all federal agencies, the American public should expect the Department of Homeland Security to have an especially rigorous process for background checks on prospective employees," Klobuchar wrote. "The hiring of Ms. Pitt appears to suggest otherwise."
TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency was investigating whether a background check of Pitt was done.
MnDOT was not contacted as a reference, and Pitt apparently did not list her former employer as one.
When asked if anyone else at TSA faces discipline or an investigation as part of the matter, White said: "It's premature to speculate what action we may take in the future relating to this investigation."
Klobuchar said Pitt had abused the public's trust.
"She shouldn't be anywhere near any public agency, let alone one that has to do with homeland security," Klobuchar said.
Pitt was fired in November 2007 after an internal MnDOT investigation revealed dubious travel expenses, the private use of a state-issued cell phone and a personal relationship with a Federal Highway Administration transportation security liaison.
Pitt started her new job in Washington barely a week after an arbitrator upheld the decision to fire her. White said Pitt was still a probationary employee when the TSA fired her.
Her job description included communicating TSA policies and procedures to outside groups and working "closely with the leadership to develop and implement stakeholders information policies and programs."
Pitt could not be reached for comment.