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State auditors find no wrongdoing in MnDOT plane deal

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota transportation officials acted within the law but did a poor job of communicating with vendors when they purchased a new airplane this summer, according to auditors who reviewed the deal amid accusations of bid rigging.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor issued its findings Tuesday, about a month after the plane controversy surfaced.

MnDOT's Office of Aeronautics was in the market this summer for a new plane to replace a 1978 Beechcraft Bonanza used for monitoring safety at small Minnesota airports.

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After initially approaching Duluth-based Cirrus Design Corp. about a new plane, department officials drew up a proposal that essentially applied only to Beechcraft. Cirrus executives complained about the process, saying it was wrong for gfficials to give Beechcraft a leg up on the contract.

Auditors, who reviewed the deal at the request of several state senators, say the bidding was above board. But they said state officials didn't do enough to inform vendors of the changed specifications.

"We found no evidence of personal gain or any other inappropriate influence on the airplane procurement process," auditors Jim Nobles and Claudia Gudvangen wrote. "Therefore, to the degree the term 'rigged' implies that corruption was involved, we do not think the evidence supports that characterization."

They went on to say that clearer communication would have headed off misunderstanding and avoided the controversy.

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who doubles as Minnesota's transportation commissioner, has chalked it up to a misunderstanding. She said the department wanted to replace a 27-year-old utility aircraft and not add a new plane to the agency's fleet. She said the Cirrus plane lacked the necessary cargo space.

Bob McFarlin, a top assistant to Molnau, said the review was fair and accurate.

"We acknowledge regret for any misunderstanding with Cirrus," he said. "We can learn from it."

Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, said he still had misgivings.

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"They may not have broken the law. But they certainly weren't up front with bidders. They certainly weren't up front with taxpayers," Skoglund said. "Why weren't we looking at the Minnesota-made product that's $300,000 less and more technologically advanced?"

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