Committee questions whether Caltrans culture led to Bay Bridge problems

Published: Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2012 - 8:47 pm

At a legislative oversight hearing Wednesday, California Department of Transportation officials said that they were working to rectify management and data-security problems that have called into question the reliability of the new Bay Bridge and other freeway structures.

The Assembly Transportation Committee addressed a recent Bee investigation that exposed fabricated data, improper testing technique and the theft of state and federal property by employees of the agency's Foundation Testing Branch. That unit examines the structural soundness of underground supports for bridges and other freeway structures.

Committee members questioned whether Caltrans' organizational culture had been tolerant of malfeasance, leading to improper actions by employees whose work affects public safety.

Duane Wiles, a former Caltrans technician who fabricated data on three structures, also worked on the foundations for the new Bay Bridge eastern span main tower, still under construction. Following The Bee's initial report on the testing issues, Wiles and his supervisor, Brian Liebich, were fired. The California Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel has agreed to examine the Bay Bridge tests, including those conducted by Wiles on the foundation structures.

Committee Chair Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, acknowledged Caltrans reassurances that all three structures on which data were fabricated – as well as the new Bay Bridge tower – are safe. But she voiced skepticism in light of the agency's slow and secretive response to the testing unit problems once they became known internally in 2008.

"The way (Caltrans officials) handled this means that their assurances are insufficient and the integrity of the program remains in question," she said.

Tony Anziano, toll bridge program manager for Caltrans, told lawmakers that the overall approach to quality assurance on the Bay Bridge tower foundation went well beyond tests conducted by Wiles, which used radiation to measure concrete density. Acoustic tests showed the bridge foundations to be strong and reliable, he said.

But Caltrans records show that among seven Bay Bridge tower piles tested by Wiles, one received no acoustic testing, and for another, acoustic tests showed problems that the testing contractor said could indicate "a very poor area of concrete." Caltrans did not consider that test before signing off on the pile, the records show.

Caltrans acting Director Malcolm Dougherty addressed questions about why employees involved in foundation testing routinely discarded their raw data files. Those files can be the key to finding or ruling out other test fabrications.

"Documentation should have been better and actions (in response to the fabrications) could have been quicker," Dougherty said, blaming a breakdown in quality assurance processes and "a breakdown in management."

Caltrans has improved record-keeping and supervision for foundation testing, he said, and the changes would prevent any repeat falsifications, which took place in 2007 and 2008. Caltrans also will bring in an outside expert to vet its new procedures.

A more general plan to improve agency quality assurance will be put in place within six months, Dougherty said.

California State Auditor Elaine M. Howle said Caltrans might have created a credibility problem by violating some basic tenets of risk management when it destroyed data central to the controversy. And instead of informing key stakeholders – such as members of the Bay Bridge oversight committee and legislators – Caltrans allowed them to learn from news reports the questions about the Bay Bridge testing and the fabrications on other structures.

Howle also cited an audit by her department showing that Caltrans employees often charged their time to projects they did not actually work on. But she said new rules would not necessarily fix every problem.

"Controls are only as good as the people who implement them," Howle said.

A federal investigation obtained by The Bee found that in addition to Wiles' admission of data fabrication fraud, Liebich admitted misappropriating steel beams and sheeting, and other construction materials. U.S. and Sacramento County prosecutors are considering criminal charges against Liebich.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing, asked Attorney General Kamala Harris to open a separate criminal investigation into Caltrans' Foundation Testing Branch.

Lowenthal said that in light of public concern about the many challenges facing the agency, her committee will continue to track its progress in overcoming quality-control problems.

"We will be watching," she said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Charles Piller



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