Lisa Shoemaker, a spokeswoman for Auditor Stacy Pickering, on Monday confirmed the probe that was first reported by The Sun Herald.
The contract paid $100 an hour for railroad advice from Bill Hughes of Hughes Consulting, which is based in Roanoke, Va., according to the newspaper. One top official to whom the consulting-services invoices were sent is no longer with MDOT, but officials there wouldn't comment on his departure.
Invoices from Hughes that MDOT provided the Sun Herald offer little explanation of what specific tasks he was being paid for other than "consulting services." He took trips to Milwaukee; Hartford, Conn.; Cincinnati; Jacksonville, Fla.; Oklahoma City and other places on MDOT's behalf and was paid up to $4,000 per trip for consulting and reimbursed for expenses.
Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, who is on the three-member elected board that oversees MDOT, said when he heard about the situation, he was "astounded." Hall said he hasn't been able to find much proof of actual work being done over the three-year period Hughes was paid.
"I'm blown away by it," Hall said. "This is as bad an example of administration as I can think of. Obviously, somebody was not on top of it."
Shoemaker declined to discuss the auditor's investigation.
MDOT officials declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing auditor's probe.
MDOT provided the Sun Herald with copies of contracts that showed Hughes' consulting fee was $100 an hour plus expenses.
Hughes told the Sun Herald some of the work he did under contract was related to improving safety at railroad crossings, freight-movement studies, advising them on railroad purchases and salvaging issues, among others.
Hughes' invoices were submitted to Steven K. Edwards, director at the time of MDOT's Office of Intermodal Planning. Edwards, who is no longer with MDOT, could not be reached for comment.
MDOT spokeswoman Carrie Adams said MDOT declined to comment on Edwards' departure, saying the matter was a "personnel issue."