Fired Caltrans manager denies wrongdoing, will seek reinstatement

01/12/2012 12:00 AM

04/11/2012 8:47 PM

Brian Liebich, the fired manager of the state Department of Transportation unit that tested the foundation of the new Bay Bridge, has denied any wrongdoing and says he has been made a scapegoat.

In an interview with The Bee, Liebich said he will press a State Personnel Board judge to reinstate him at a Feb. 24 settlement conference next month. He had been fired following a Bee investigation that found his branch had a record of fabricating data, and was responsible for testing problems on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and other structures throughout the state.

"They have basically trumped up a lot of fluff for a dismissal," Liebich said of his firing notice from Caltrans. That notice cited the discovery of pornography on his work computer, theft of construction materials and improper approvals of extra pay for two employees, including technician Duane Wiles, who falsified test data.

An agency spokeswoman said Caltrans would not comment on the pending legal matter.

The firing letter did not address allegations that Liebich covered up testing problems to exonerate his unit. Liebich was fired in November, shortly after The Bee interviewed agency officials about his work within the Foundation Testing Branch.

Testing errors on the foundation of the main tower of the new Bay Bridge, combined with design issues cited by experts, raised questions about the structure's stability. Those issues are now being examined by a state engineering panel and legislators.

Liebich said the pornographic images were not his. According to a chain of evidence document provided by Liebich and referenced in his firing letter, Caltrans administrators apparently discovered the images in 2009, but did not mention them until the firing.

"I don't have a way to disprove it," he said of pornography charge. "I don't know how these got here."

Denies thefts

Liebich called claims that he stole property "an utter lie."

The U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General wrote in October that Liebich admitted stealing steel beams, sheet metal and other materials. The report said Wiles and other employees helped move the beams to Liebich's property in Susanville, 185 miles northeast of Sacramento.

The federal investigator also concluded that Liebich had employees construct a gate from stolen materials and move it to his property.

When The Bee reported the findings in November, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee, said that Liebich's apparent criminal activity might have given Wiles and others the impression "that people in the (foundation testing) branch didn't need to do their jobs because their supervisor couldn't do anything about it."

Liebich said that nearly all the materials were discards, so he wasn't wrong in taking them, and that his intention was to reuse the beams for future Caltrans work.

Liebich provided documents to support the claims. In an affidavit for the federal investigator, Liebich stated that he was instructed to remove the beams from their storage location and – lacking an alternate site – he had them placed at his property. A statement from technician Robert Bond indicated plans to use the steel beams for Caltrans projects. Other materials were taken from a waste Dumpster, Liebich wrote.

A memo prepared by the investigator substantially reflected Liebich's comments. A spokesman for the Office of the Inspector General declined to comment, so the authenticity of the documents could not be verified.

Liebich said that the final investigative report – and his firing letter – wrongly state that he admitted misappropriating valuable materials from a "recycling Dumpster."

A handwritten statement from technician Robert Medina, who helped make the gate, stated that he did so during his lunch breaks. A canceled check showed that Liebich paid Medina $50 for the work.

Employees moved the gate to Liebich's property en route to a job in Burney, northwest of Susanville, Liebich said. The drop-off would have required a lengthy detour.

Medina and Bond declined to comment.

A separate structure on Liebich's property, constructed in part from the materials in question, was built by Liebich and a friend on their own time, according to a signed statement from the friend.

Liebich also denied that he ever improperly approved overtime or differential pay for Wiles or Walter Wyllie, another technician, who together were paid extra on more than 200 occasions in 2008, according to the firing notice. Wyllie declined to comment, and Wiles could not be reached for comment.

Liebich acknowledged that he verbally counseled Wyllie about apparent overtime abuse, and suspected that both Wiles and Wyllie might have claimed pay that they did not earn. But in the cases cited by Caltrans, he lacked proof.

Liebich also provided a 2010 transcript of an investigative interview conducted by Caltrans with his then-boss, Mark Willian, in which Willian praised Liebich's records of employee hours.

Cover-up allegations

Liebich also defended his actions in the investigation of Wiles' fraud.

When Wiles' initial fabrication came to light in late 2008, Liebich asked two engineers, Michael Morgan and Tejinderjit Singh, to review data for other signs of fraud.

In an email obtained by The Bee, Morgan said his evaluation "barely scratches the surface of what could reasonably be called a thorough or comprehensive search for falsified data."

Yet Liebich wrote to his supervisor in 2009 that the work verified "the integrity of all of the (testing) data collected by the Branch."

In a later email, Morgan called Liebich's exoneration of the unit's work "a well-crafted misrepresentation." DeSaulnier accused Liebich of an "apparent cover-up."

Liebich said he based his comments on "the best information I had at the time," including an understanding that Morgan and Singh had conducted a thorough review. He could supply no evidence for that claim.

Caltrans said it had released all relevant documents, which did not support Liebich's position. Morgan and Singh declined to comment.

Before the fabrications came to light, Wiles' routinely crass and rude behavior alienated co-workers, Liebich acknowledged. Yet, along with other technicians, Wiles was assigned to mentor new employees to ensure that they would "learn the best techniques."

Liebich said he attempted to fire Wiles after his fraud became known, but higher-ups told him that the maximum punishment for a first offense for fabricating bridge data was a warning. They removed Wiles from Liebich's unit and placed him in other testing jobs.

It "sickened me," Liebich said.

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