Bay Bridge

Editorial: Brown must vet integrity of bridge

Once it is rebuilt, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will be an iconic structure whose majesty should give all Californians a deep sense of pride.

But as we learn today, Caltrans, the state agency responsible for overseeing this massive $6.3 billion undertaking, has placed the integrity of that bridge in question.

It let every Californian down by failing to properly monitor an inspector, Duane Wiles, who was responsible for testing seven of 13 pilings that form the bridge's foundation. After Wiles was disciplined for faulty inspections, Caltrans conducted only a cursory review of his work.

Its failure to police its own is shameful, and requires Gov. Jerry Brown's immediate intervention.

Brown must consider convening a panel of top engineers to review shoddy work by Wiles to determine if there is any risk to the public. The governor should gather outside experts to review the state Transportation Department, to better understand how Wiles was allowed to operate as he did.

In stark language, The Bee's Charles Piller discloses Wiles' role in supposed inspections of the foundation of the Bay Bridge and at least 24 other bridges, walkways and other structures in San Diego, San Jose, Anaheim, Oroville, Placerville and Los Angeles.

Instead of following established procedures, Wiles skipped important steps, including failing to verify the accuracy of his gauges; falsifying results; and discarding files that could have been used to check his inspections, Piller's reporting showed.

In 2009 and 2010, a whistleblower, whose documents Piller later obtained, and Caltrans testing employees fought to get the attention of Caltrans' leadership and of the Bureau of State Audits. Inexplicably and inexcusably, Caltrans' leadership did nothing.

Brian Liebich, Wiles' direct supervisor, was among the managers who seemed to turn a deaf ear to warnings issued by Caltrans workers.

"We are putting the reputation and integrity of the (testing branch) at stake," Michael Morgan, then a Caltrans foundation test engineer, told Liebich in a memo. "We are a public agency, and the data and conclusions contained in our reports can end up costing contractors thousands to millions of dollars. Our work also can be linked to the safety of the traveling public."

When Liebich didn't act, Morgan went to Liebich's boss, Mark Willian. In April 2009, Willian reprimanded Wiles, writing that the fabrication was "a critical and inexcusable breach of ethics." Willian excused the ethical breach by requesting that Wiles behave in an ethical manner in the future. The punishment could not have been more limp.

Caltrans' responses to Piller have been especially troubling. Its spokesmen have dodged the issues raised by Wiles' actions, minimized potential problems, taken no responsibility for failing to act, and refused to release key documents.

Incredibly, Wiles and Liebich remain employed by the state of California. They were placed on administrative leave only after Piller started asking his uncomfortable questions.

Caltrans' problems are not new. In 2004, the Bureau of State Audits pointed to a financial crisis stemming from the failure by the managers of the Bay Bridge reconstruction to disclose huge cost overruns.

This $13.3 billion agency remains in a sorry state of disrepair. The Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended that lawmakers cut the Caltrans workforce by 1,500 positions. That would be a start.

No doubt, legislators will read today's articles and have serious questions for Caltrans' acting director, Malcolm Dougherty, and his predecessors, Randell H. Iwasaki and Will Kempton, as well they should. If the Legislature does attempt to carry out its oversight function, lawmakers should be sober in their review, and not grandstand.

Brown needs to get engaged in this issue. He began his tenure with ambitious plans to enhance his state and his family's legacy, and has hopes of undertaking big projects. He will be unable to solve this state's many needs unless he confronts the mismanaged agency that is Caltrans.

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