U.S. probe links Caltrans pair to thefts

11/27/2011 12:00 AM

04/11/2012 8:48 PM

A federal investigation has found that two Caltrans employees recently fired over problems in the agency's unit that tests underground foundations for bridges were involved in the theft of construction materials owned by the state and federal governments.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing, said the report sheds new light on a possible nexus between the thefts, which benefited former unit chief Brian Liebich, and the handling of fabricated test results for three freeway structures by his subordinate, technician Duane Wiles. Both issues originally were reported in a recent Bee investigation.

"Criminal activity gave Wiles and maybe others the opinion that people in the (foundation testing) branch didn't need to do their jobs because their supervisor couldn't do anything about it," DeSaulnier said.

The investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General found that Wiles took part in the theft of federal and state building supplies on behalf of Liebich. Liebich later downplayed the extent of Wiles' data fabrications, based largely on an examination of the test data by an engineer who called his own assessment "cursory" and inadequate.

In a memo to Liebich the engineer expressed alarm about public safety hazards posed by possible data fabrication that had not been detected.

Although the first fabrication episode was discovered by the state Department of Transportation in September 2008, Wiles and Liebich were fired only after The Bee detailed the problems. The Bee report also explored questions about the structural integrity of the new Bay Bridge. Wiles was involved in foundation tests for the new span's signature tower.

No public statement has been made about what prompted the federal investigation, and the U.S. Department of Transportation declined to comment.

But The Bee obtained a copy of a 2009 letter written by an anonymous whistle-blower to Will Kempton, then director of Caltrans. Unless a serious investigation of alleged wrongdoing – both fabricated tests and stolen materials – ensued, the whistle-blower wrote, federal authorities would be alerted.

The federal report does not indicate when the theft of building materials took place, but according to the dates of photos obtained by The Bee, it was between 2006 and 2008. The images appear to place state technicians and Caltrans construction gear and materials on Liebich's forestland near Susanville, about 185 miles northeast of Sacramento. The Bee verified the presence of the materials, and structures apparently built from them, on Liebich's property.

The federal investigative report, dated Oct. 4 but based largely on interviews conducted last fall, notes that Liebich subsequently admitted to having "misappropriated" state and federal property, defined as theft under federal law.

Wiles admitted that he handled and moved some of the materials, under Liebich's direction, to Liebich's land. When Wiles' data fabrications subsequently came to light, Liebich used a hastily conducted analysis to conclude that Wiles had falsified data just once. That conclusion was disproved soon after, when two other cases were found.

DeSaulnier said the sequence of events suggests "a cultural problem in the (foundation testing) branch, and maybe within the whole (geotechnical) division, that we have to get at."

Caltrans officials have said that all structures for which Wiles fabricated test data have been reassessed and found to be safe, and that state and federal examinations found fabrications in just those three cases. The Bay Bridge was not among them.

The matter is under review by legislators and an expert engineering panel.

The U.S. Department of Transportation report, marked "for official use only," fills in some of the blanks about illegal activity within Liebich's unit. The Bee recently obtained all but its final two pages and appendices.

According to the report, Liebich admitted to taking construction materials owned by Caltrans and the federal government, including massive steel beams, concrete and galvanized metal sheeting. The report did not specify a value for the items, and Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said the agency had not yet determined their value.

Liebich also admitted to instructing four subordinates – Wiles and three other technicians – to use the materials to build a large gate and to transport it and other stolen materials with Caltrans vehicles to his Susanville property and to install the gate, the report states.

The report does not indicate whether the state employees performed the work on their own time, and Rocco said the agency would not comment on "a confidential personnel matter."

Liebich did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Soon after the first data falsification by Wiles became known inside the Foundation Testing Branch in September 2008, Liebich ordered a review of records to determine if other fabrications had occurred. Michael Morgan, one of the engineers who conducted the review, said the evaluation "barely scratches the surface of what could reasonably be called a thorough or comprehensive search for falsified data."

Yet largely on the basis of Morgan's work, Liebich told his own boss that Wiles' other testing was above reproach, as was that of the rest of the foundation testing unit. "Morgan's analysis ," Liebich wrote in a memo, "verifies the integrity of all of the (testing) data collected by the Branch."

In an email obtained by The Bee, Morgan called Liebich's exoneration of the unit's work "a well-crafted misrepresentation."

Wiles was kept in his job until other fabricated tests were suspected by engineers, the federal report noted. He then was shifted to a different technical division within Caltrans.

During a Tuesday hearing conducted by DeSaulnier's committee, senators voiced skepticism about the adequacy of research into possible problems with the structures Wiles assessed.

DeSaulnier called Liebich's review of Wiles' work an "apparent cover-up." He cited allegations by an anonymous whistle-blower that Wiles had boasted that he could fake data easily, and might have done so on additional occasions.

"I will ask the (California) attorney general to examine the branch and division for possible criminal activities, given the problems I perceive in the culture," he said in an interview. "We've got to be concerned – was it just the isolated three incidents, or were there more?"

Although the U.S. Department of Transportation report was referred to prosecutors, the offices of Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully and U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner declined the cases. The latter cited "a lack of federal interest and lack of deterrent value" in any prosecution, according to the federal report.

Scott Prentice, principal intake attorney for Scully, told investigators that he "could not find a state crime or charge" that applied to Wiles' data fraud, and foresaw problems proving that Liebich intended to steal the building materials, even though the investigative report notes that Liebich admitted to the allegations in a sworn statement.

Caltrans acting Director Malcolm Dougherty recently wrote to each of the prosecuting agencies, asking them to reconsider charges against Wiles, with no mention of Liebich. Spokespersons for the prosecutors said the Wiles case would get a fresh look.

The federal investigation also addressed a central mystery of the affair: why Wiles fabricated data.

Caltrans officials have said that Wiles provided no explanation about his motivations, and he declined to comment when contacted by The Bee.

According to the federal report, he cut and pasted data from other sources when he hadn't completed a testing job on time.

"Wiles stated his pride got in the way of his work and he did not want to look like he submitted incomplete data," the investigator noted. Wiles denied any involvement in the two other fabrications that Caltrans has attributed to him, according to the report.

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