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Fired MnDOT official now at Homeland Security

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Minnesota Department of Transportation emergency response director fired following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse has been on the payroll for months at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Sonia Pitt was hired for Homeland Security's Transportation Safety Administration at its headquarters in Arlington, Va., the Star Tribune newspaper reported Thursday.

Pitt, 44, of Red Wing, confirmed her new job to the newspaper but declined further comment. Her job title is ''Transportation Security Specialist.'' TSA regional spokeswoman Carrie Harmon would provide only Pitt's job title and her hiring date.

She was hired for the federal job six months after being fired by MnDOT as its director of homeland security for work-schedule improprieties. She had taken an unauthorized, state-paid trip to Washington, D.C., during the Interstate 35W bridge collapse on Aug. 1 and didn't return to the state for nearly two weeks.

Democratic state Rep. Jeremy Kalin expressed amazement that Pitt landed in another security-sensitive public position.

''She certainly didn't show she could be counted on to take care of her job here at home,'' Kalin said. ''So I'm quite surprised and actually upset that she'd find another home in the public sector, especially in homeland security.''

An investigation by the Minnesota Legislative Auditor concluded she was a ''belligerent, aggressive'' employee who abused her position and billed the state for thousands of dollars in excessive compensation for airfare, hotels, mileage and personal cell phone calls.

Her case was referred to the Ramsey County Attorney's Office for possible charges. Office spokesman Jack Rhodes said Thursday that the case remains under review but she has not been charged with any crime.

Pitt's letter of discharge said she violated MnDOT's ethics code and was involved in ''activities that cannot withstand public scrutiny without embarrassment.'' She challenged her firing, but an arbitrator upheld it.

Three MnDOT managers were reprimanded and one was suspended for lax oversight of Pitt.

Her publicly paid travel came under scrutiny after the collapse on Aug. 1. That day she was at an authorized leadership conference in Cambridge, Mass. One of her Minnesota colleagues who was also at the conference quickly returned to the Twin Cities but Pitt finished the conference and then flew Aug. 4 to Washington, where she stayed until Aug. 11.

She was accused of misusing her state-issued cell phone by making hours of personal calls. Many of the calls -- 94 hours worth -- were to phone numbers belonging to Daniel Ferezan, a Federal Highway Administration program manager for transportation security in Washington. State investigators said Pitt and Ferezan were involved in a personal relationship in 2007.

Pitt argued before the arbitrator that the calls to Ferezan were business related, but the arbitrator ruled against her.

''It is unreasonable to attribute such an inordinate percentage of her airtime to one particular person at one particular federal agency as all business-related,'' arbitrator Christine Ver Ploeg wrote on May 15.