Leader's past now an issue

ATLANTA --- Complaints that state Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans had improper relationships with co-workers in previous jobs have added to the personal and financial issues that have shaken morale at the state Department of Transportation.


Tawdry e-mails Mrs. Evans sent to co-workers and subordinates while she worked at Georgia Building Authority and Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission -- which caused ethics watchdog George Anderson to call for her firing -- emerged as Mrs. Evans is trying to clean up a financial mess she inherited after taking the DOT's helm.

The state Transportation Board discussed Mrs. Evans at a two-hour, closed-door session Thursday but emerged without taking action.

Still, there are schisms in the DOT about Mrs. Evans' leadership. Mr. Anderson says morale is low because of her management style and because the e-mails smell of hypocrisy to some -- Mrs. Evans has fired or otherwise punished DOT employees caught with pornography on state computers.

Board member David Doss is among those questioning whether the deficit Mrs. Evans says she's trying to control is a funding shortage or an accounting problem.

Chairman Bill Kuhlke, of Augusta, one of Mrs. Evans' supporters, admits divisions exist.

MRS. EVANS' TENURE at the DOT began after Gov. Sonny Perdue won a behind-the-scenes fight to get her named commissioner.

Mr. Perdue lobbied hard for Mrs. Evans -- then Gena Abraham -- and House Speaker Glenn Richardson pushed for House Transportation Chairman Vance Smith.

When the board elected Mrs. Evans, Mr. Richardson used his influence in an attempt to depose Chairman Mike Evans, who cast the key vote for her. Legislators elect transportation board members, and when Mr. Evans won re-election Mr. Richardson stripped legislators who supported him of their House leadership assignments and prime office space.

Six months later, Mr. Evans resigned to pursue a relationship with the new commissioner, and they married in September.

In an interview in July, Mrs. Evans expressed bewilderment about the controversy.

"I didn't know there was an election, I didn't know the politics around the commissioner's position, and I sure didn't realize that my personal life would be of great interest," she said.

MRS. EVANS and her supporters see the battle over her previous actions as another example of DOT politics. Mrs. Evans told TV reporters that she's trying to shake up a good ol' boy network, resolve a massive budget deficit and change what she feels is a lax attitude among some workers.

"Anytime you make some changes, anytime you've got longtime employees, anytime there's difference than what we had before, there are going to be people that are disgruntled," Mr. Kuhlke said.

He said he has gotten more negative e-mails about Mrs. Evans than positive ones -- but he had asked some of those sending supportive e-mails to stop because the volume was overwhelming.

Still, former co-workers have reached out to Mr. Anderson, the executive director of the Ethics in Government Group. He released an anonymous statement from a former employee ripping Mrs. Evans' leadership of the Georgia Building Authority and the Georgia State Finance and Investment Commission.

Mr. Doss and other transportation board members have questioned the need to eliminate millions in local road funding to cope with the budget deficit -- an act that endangers the jobs of DOT employees. Mrs. Evans has said the cuts are necessary.

The controversy about Mrs. Evans' personal life remains a distraction. Mr. Kuhlke said board members were troubled by the coarse language in some of the e-mails and by conflicting statements Mrs. Evans gave to a TV interviewer about her involvement in a state project one her boyfriends worked on.

And Emory McClinton angrily complained at last week's meeting that he still had not received by Thursday an audit report released to the public today.

Mrs. Evans insisted the report has been sent to all board members.

Mr. Doss is among those growing weary of the controversy.

"Are we helping the citizens of Georgia with the transportation system?" he said.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (678) 977-3709 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.

BACKGROUND: In April, Department of Transportation Chairman Mike Evans resigned to pursue a relationship with Transportation Commissioner Gena Abraham. In September, the couple married, and Gena Evans remained as commissioner.

In October, George Anderson, who calls himself an ethics watchdog, wrote a letter to DOT board members, accusing Mrs. Evans of having had previous inappropriate relationships with co-workers and of using her official state e-mail account to send and receive sexually explicit e-mails.


- On Wednesday, Mr. Anderson called on DOT board members to fire Mrs. Evans.

- On Thursday, the board met in a closed-door session and took no action against Mrs. Evans.

-- Morris News Service