The Florida Department of Transportation’s top lawyer resigned Thursday, amid an inspector general’s report this week that found he forged the signatures of underlings on official documents, a finding that prompted the Florida Bar to open a misconduct probe.
“Today, Erik Fenniman resigned from the position of General Counsel at the Florida Department of Transportation, effective immediately,” the agency said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
The Florida Bar said this week it has opened an investigation into the conduct of Fenniman, who days earlier was cited by an inspector general as having admitted to forging government documents.
“I can confirm we have a file open,” said Francine Walker, spokeswoman for the Tallahassee-based bar. “We are investigating.”
A probe of a separate allegation — that the lawyer ordered others to make postdated alterations to a document that was supposed to be modified in the wake of the Florida International University bridge collapse but wasn’t — was deemed to be “inconclusive.”
Bar investigations are administrative in nature but can result in a lawyer losing the ability to practice law in Florida. If the nine-member grievance panel finds enough cause for concern, it can send the matter to the Florida Supreme Court.
Word of the unusual bar probe into Florida Department of Transportation General Counsel Erik Fenniman, whose salary is listed as $132,000, followed a report released Monday by the agency’s inspector general. It concluded that Fenniman improperly forged the names of two underlings on documents, including one subordinate who had resigned her post weeks earlier. Release of the inspector general’s conclusions were first reported by Politico.
The IG report deemed “inconclusive” its findings relating to the allegation that Fenniman sought to improperly backdate changes made to an administrative document. The changes were in response to federal recommendations in the aftermath of the pedestrian bridge collapse at FIU. The under-construction bridge fell onto Tamiami Trail traffic on March 15, 2018, killing six.
Fenniman has spent his entire legal career at the FDOT since graduating from the Florida State University College of Law. He was first hired as a junior lawyer. Bar records show he has been licensed to practice law in Florida since 2003 and has been subject to no prior complaints. He briefly served as interim FDOT secretary while retaining his position as the agency’s chief counsel.
Fenniman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The inspector general investigated the forgery complaint against Fenniman after the agency was alerted by former staff lawyer Latasha Johnson, who’d been in charge of contracts and special projects for the general counsel’s office. Her email to the IG said her name was on a March 9, 2020, letter from FDOT to St. Lucie Village, but she had already left the agency to return to the private sector in late February. The subsequent inspector general’s investigation found a second letter, dated March 12, that had a similar- looking signature but the name of another FDOT employee, Denise Johnson.
The IG’s office notified the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which determined a criminal investigation was unnecessary and referred the complaint back to the inspector general. The IG’s office, in asking for an explanation from agency leaders, cited potential violation of state government rules against falsifying records, along with misconduct and conduct unbecoming a state employee.
“I was and remain concerned about the [Office of General Counsel] leadership under Erik Fenniman with respect to issues of honesty and integrity,” Johnson said in a brief telephone interview with the Herald/McClatchy, calling the IG report thorough. “They gave it three months or more and interviewed numerous people. I don’t believe they tried to unfairly shield or protect someone who is high up in the agency. The findings are that it is proven that he forged documentation.”
According to the IG report, Fenniman acknowledged the forged signatures when confronted. He told investigators he intended to reach out to Latasha Johnson, now at the Miami law firm Ehrenstein Sager, but never got around to it.
“This is wrong, I admit I shouldn’t have signed for Latasha,” the report quoted him as saying.
On the second forged signature, a letter sent to a law firm with staffer Denise Johnson’s signature, Fenniman acknowledged it only after being shown the document by investigators.
“Fenniman went on to say this was not a common practice for him, and that his methodology is to insulate the Secretary by placing a buffer of individuals between him and the Secretary” the report said, not describing why the transportation secretary would need any such insulation from decisions made by staff lawyers.
While the report said it was proven he forged two signatures, it cited as inconclusive the allegation by Latasha Johnson and another staffer, Lorraine Moyle, that Fenniman asked them in October 2019 to make improperly dated changes to an administrative manual. These requested changes came at the same time that Fenniman was handling a records request for that document and others by the Miami Herald. In addition to handling those records requests, Fenniman was a liaison with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the bridge collapse.
The Local Agency Program manual, an administrative guide for obtaining funds, was supposed to have been updated to incorporate recommendations from the NTSB. However, the manual lacked the actual changes, which FDOT had previously announced in a press release under then-Secretary Mike Dew. The IG report deemed the outcome of its inquiry into that allegation inconclusive because Moyle and Johnson testified that they refused to implement the request for backdated changes and Fenniman denied making the request.
“It should be noted that the OIG found no evidence that any Department records were backdated,” the report said.