In one of his last public acts as state transportation secretary in the waning days of Gov. Bev Perdue's administration, Gene Conti went to Wilmington on Dec. 8 to preside over a bridge-naming ceremony in honor of Lanny Wilson, a Democratic Party fundraiser who was forced to resign from the state Board of Transportation in 2010 amid state and federal investigations that brought down Perdue's predecessor, former Gov. Mike Easley.
As The N&O's Bruce Siceloff notes, the bridge naming caused a political stir, drawing attacks from Republicans and sour feelings from some Wilmington area folks who believed Wilson did not deserve the honor.
In his remarks putting Wilson's name on the Martin Luther King. Jr. Boulevard bridge over North 23rd Street, Conti said called the bridge-naming "the highest honor N.C. DOT can bestow" and "a fitting tribute to a man who's done so much to improve transportation in this Cape Fear region," according to the Wilmington Star-News.
He didn't stop there, as the Star-News reported:
Conti said he was pleased to be naming a bridge for Wilson despite the controversy that surrounded his leaving office.
"I worked with Lanny for a long time," Conti said. "He's never taken money or done anything wrong, that I know of."
It's true that Wilson was never accused of taking money. He was the man who gave the money.
But: Nothing wrong that he knew of?
Copious evidence including his own testimony before the state Board of Elections showed that Wilson funneled gifts and cash to Easley to secure political access and to advance his real estate interests. He financed a Carteret County real estate development where Easley was given a $137,000 discount on a lot. He admitted making campaign contributions to Easley that the Board of Elections ruled illegal.
Easley and his aide Ruffin Poole were convicted of felonies. Wilson was not charged with a crime.
Asked in advance why he was conferring the honor on Wilson, Conti provided this email reply on Dec. 7 (he misidentified the roadway that now carries Wilson's name):
“The City of Wilmington requested that an interchange on I-140 be named for Lanny Wilson in honor of the work he did on that project and his many other civic endeavors in Wilmington and New Hanover County. It is the practice of the naming committee to accept the recommendations of the local government consistent with the Board’s guidelines. In this case, that standard was met and there were no objections raised either by the committee members or at the time the full board approved it.”
That sounds as if it was a matter as routine as granting the city's request for a new traffic signal. But it wasn't.