In the fall, with the catastrophic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge putting her leadership under unprecedented scrutiny, state Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau met with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and they discussed her resigning.
Pawlenty left the decision up to her, and Molnau stayed. Even now, with DFL lawmakers saying they'll vote to remove her as transportation commissioner next month, and no current public show of support from the governor, Molnau is staying put.
"No one here at MnDOT's done anything wrong, nor have I," she said. "My plan is to stay here and do what I need to do."
In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, Molnau, who since 2003 has served both as lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner, defended her actions and those of the Minnesota Department of Transportation since the Aug. 1 collapse of the bridge.
She scoffed at suggestions that she has handed over the running of MnDOT to subordinates, wouldn't speculate on her chances of surviving a Senate confirmation hearing, and said many people -- including DFLers -- have told her she was being unfairly criticized.
And echoing what she has told to small groups, Molnau also said she believed federal investigators now have a "pretty good idea" why the 1960s-era, structurally deficient bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100. But Molnau said she had not asked them about the cause because she prefers to await the official findings.
"We don't know why it fell," she said. Asked whether there was anything MnDOT could have done to prevent the collapse of the bridge, whose structural problems had been scrutinized for years, she said, "I really don't believe that at all."
While repeating that she had no plans to step down, Molnau said Pawlenty asked months ago "just about whether I thought about" resigning. Pawlenty, she said, "had no push one way or the other."
After initially telling the governor, "I'll get back to you," she said, she told him she preferred to stay.
The governor, she added, told her, "It's up to you ... I think he said, 'You've done a good job.'"
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said Wednesday that the governor and Molnau had a meeting a few months ago and "discussed the possibility of her resigning and concluded she would remain as transportation commissioner pending the Legislature's confirmation decision." McClung did not respond to a question about whether the governor currently supports Molnau.
Molnau said she has not received recent assurances from the governor but assumed she still had his support even as Senate DFLers -- and other Molnau critics who see her as a symbol of MnDOT's failures -- predict she will not be confirmed when the Legislature convenes in February. Even if she loses her post as transportation commissioner, Molnau would remain in office as lieutenant governor.
After the bridge fell
Molnau, who has generally maintained a low public profile since Aug. 1, said she and the governor were in daily contact in the weeks after the bridge collapsed and generally agreed on how to respond to the crisis.
Molnau said she lowered her profile in the days immediately following the collapse because she found that her appearance at one public event had put the focus on her and it "became very political."
In the months that followed, Molnau was faulted by many lawmakers and others for her handling of the disaster and the agency's operations in general. One poll showed that 35 percent of Minnesotans approved of her response to the disaster, while 56 percent approved of Pawlenty's response.
Asked about the discrepancy, she replied, "I don't think it's necessarily fair. I think it's what happens. ... Someone is always held responsible by someone," she said. "I don't blame people."
The bridge collapse prompted scrutiny of the agency's record of inspections and studies of the bridge, which had been identified as having serious structural and maintenance problems. Molnau said she had no role in her agency's decision in early 2007 to conduct more intensive inspections of the bridge, rather than follow a recommendation to strengthen it with steel plates.
"I did not make that decision," Molnau said, attributing it to an engineer and others she wouldn't name.
She said she doesn't regret the decision "because they were the people most qualified to do that."
MnDOT would know by now if the National Transportation Safety Board had found any shortcomings in maintenance that would have jeopardized the bridge, Molnau said.
"If the NTSB felt that there was something that we were lacking, that would help other states, that would be made public immediately," she said.
She said she believed maintenance of the bridge had been adequate, but added, "I'm not a speculator. I am waiting for NTSB's final report."
Asked about the role of Bob McFarlin, assistant to the commissioner, who some critics say is the decision-maker in the agency, she said, "I would say that would be a very hard claim to make."
Instead, she described a leadership process that included McFarlin and six other top department officials who meet weekly on important matters.
"We make those decisions as a group," she said, adding that McFarlin became the public face of the department as "spokesperson for the events of the day. That was his job."
The Pitt case
Molnau also defended her agency's actions concerning Sonia Morphew Pitt, the MnDOT emergency management director who did not return to Minnesota for 10 days after the bridge collapse. Pitt was fired, and the agency reprimanded three of her superiors after Legislative Auditor James Nobles found shortcomings in MnDOT's oversight of Pitt.
"Should have there been better [supervision]? Perhaps," Molnau said.
She said she did not see Pitt's case as symbolic of the agency's internal problems, and she downplayed her decision not to attend the Nov. 28 legislative commission meeting when Nobles outlined his findings in the Pitt case. "I had to go somewhere else. I just cannot recall," said Molnau, who instead issued a written statement.
Molnau said she has received more gestures of encouragement from the public than criticism. "I fill up with gas, and somebody says, 'I just want to you know we're supporting you.'"
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388