State grills Manteo officials over dredge project

Published 7:08 am Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Investigators from the North Carolina Office of the State Auditor are interviewing current and former Manteo elected officials this week. The auditors are attempting to determine if a dredging project at an access channel to Doughs Creek was undertaken to benefit an individual or small group of influential residents.

Town Manager Kermit Skinner has said securing funding for the project took the town more than 10 years. He said the channel shoaling issue first came to light in 2006 or 2007 and requests to the state asking them to live up to an agreement to maintain the channel around the state-owned Roanoke Island Festival Park fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until state Sen. Bill Cook intervened that the nearly $649,000 project was approved and funded.

The state auditor’s office charged with providing assessments on proper expenditures of state money and resources won’t comment on the Manteo inquiry while interviews are ongoing. It appears the investigation was prompted by an anonymous self-proclaimed “whistleblower” letter sent to the auditor’s office and other agencies. The letter accuses the dredging project of using tax dollars for the purpose of personally benefiting current Manteo commissioners and former town commissioners and mayors.

Two current commissioners, Nancy Peele and Christine Walker, and planning board member and former Mayor Lee Tugwell, live on Doughs Creek and have commercial fishing interests. Another former mayor, John Wilson, also lives on Doughs Creek with a home and business located at the foot of the boat basin. Wilson has publicly spoken against the need for the dredging project.

The “whistleblower” letter also accuses the local Coastal Area Management Act permitting office of being in collusion with the town, although the letter offers no supporting details. The letter makes inference to the possibility that dredge spoil was removed and sold by the project contractor. The town has previously discussed the missing dredge spoil and is poised to modify payment due the project contractor, Carolina Marine Structures, to reflect the missing 71 dump truck loads of missing muck, estimated to be worth $15,000.

Auditors have also requested details for a property leased for the use of unloading the dredge spoil from the canal dredging. Known as the Klimkiewicz property, it was leased for $50,000 for 120 days. Commissioner Hannon Fry is the property agent and former Mayor Lee Tugwell acted as the on-site agent for the Klimkiewicz family.

The town’s engineers, Quible and Associates, in a letter to the state auditor said after Department of Cultural Resources and the festival park would not allow use of their property for dredge spoil and consultation with the dredging contractors, that the most economical solution was to use the Klimkiewicz property as the transfer site, and then use the Town’s Public Works Yard for disposal. It appears the agreement between the property owner’s agent and the town was never put in writing but rather a verbal agreement,

There appears to be no clear-cut accusation in the letter or among current and past town officials on what prompted the audit. Instead there’s a wide range of guesses as to who, if anyone, unfairly profited from the project. Some will privately tell you it is politically-motivated letter while others believe the project should of never taken place and the accusations are an attempt to right a wrong.

Two auditors are conducting the interviews at the Manteo Town Hall and have asked to see 11 current and past elected and appointed officials.  They included current Mayor Bobby Owens and board of commissioners, former mayor John Wilson and Jamie Daniels, the Manteo town manager and town clerk.

Mayor Bobby Owens was interviewed by the auditors on Monday. He said he couldn’t tell what they were focusing on, they asked a lot of questions.

“I told them I didn’t become mayor until after the dredging project was decided,” he said. “I wasn’t involved in the project.”

Owens did say he knew the state had made a promise “way back when” to keep the ditch [Doughs Creek access canal] open.

Much of what the auditors were asking about was what Owens termed “street talk.” The mayor said it wasn’t for him to say if there had been wrongdoing but he did have a concern that if the audit did find something wrong Manteo, could lose the grant money and that could leave the town on the hook for the cost of the project.