In a sometimes contentious legislative hearing Tuesday, state senators told California Department of Transportation officials that their management of data falsification by a technician in one of the agency's testing units suggests pervasive management problems.
"I'm a little bit troubled about what seems to be a systemic problem in the agency," said Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar. "I'm concerned that it took a whistle-blower and the press to bring this to light .
"I can only imagine if you were a private entity caught in falsifying data, what the consequences would be."
The Senate transportation committee's hearing was called to address the findings of a recent Bee investigation concerning fabricated data, improper test methods and apparent misuse of state property in the Foundation Testing Branch, which examines the integrity of underground supports for bridges and other freeway structures. The Bee found that Duane Wiles, a technician who fabricated data on three structures, also examined the foundations for portions of the new Bay Bridge eastern span, slated for completion in 2013.
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Huff suggested that the state might consider moving some Caltrans responsibilities to county agencies as part of a realignment of budget priorities.
Lawmakers expressed concern that Caltrans officials knew for years about the problems, but failed to inform other agencies – or even other Caltrans officials – responsible for oversight of the new Bay Bridge. They also asked why the agency took three years to remove Wiles and his supervisor after the first falsified data were discovered. Caltrans fired the pair only after The Bee report appeared.
The Bee also detailed testing and design concerns about the main tower foundation for the Bay Bridge. Last week, a state oversight agency asked the California Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel to examine that tower foundation for structural integrity.
Caltrans acting Director Malcolm Dougherty told lawmakers that data analyses could find fabrications involving only three structures. He said the new Bay Bridge is not among them, and is completely safe. Recent reviews, he said, showed that the structures subject to falsified data also are reliable. "You sound very emphatic, that you know authoritatively that there have been only three instances" of fabricated data, Huff said to Dougherty, challenging him to prove the assertion.
The Caltrans director said his agency's conclusions were based on checking strings of data to find duplicated blocks of numerical results. Such duplications, he said, suggest that data from one foundation pile had been fabricated by copying and pasting it from the results of another. Federal investigators used the same process and reached the same conclusion, he said, calling it "the only realistic way to falsify this data."
"That you know of – and that's the problem," Huff responded, noting that other means of fabrication were difficult to rule out.
Steve Heminger, chairman of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, which initiated the expert review of the Bay Bridge, raised the same point.
"It's very difficult, because you are almost in the position of proving a negative," he said, adding that the expert panel will examine other ways that data might have been falsified. He indicated that its review would include other portions of the Bay Bridge and the Benicia Bridge.
"We need to track down wherever this individual worked, what he did," and if needed investigate any possible problems, Heminger said.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, transportation committee chairman, noted that a whistle-blower wrote to Will Kempton, then-director of Caltrans, in 2009, indicating that some of Wiles' colleagues suspected that he might have fabricated data routinely.
"This indicates to me that there was much more going on there," DeSaulnier said. "It raises a red flag."
Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, vice chairman of the committee, said that legislators would consider proposing a detailed audit of Caltrans by the State Bureau of Audits. "We need an outside body to look at their best practices ," he said, "how they function as an organization."
Dougherty said he would invite "any third party to come in and review our practices and procedures."
DeSaulnier said his committee would hold a future hearing to examine these problems in more detail, and challenged Caltrans to be open about its internal processes.
"When public documents are public documents, the best thing to do is give them to the press" without undue delay, he said. "It's not a 'gotcha' game but (meant) to rebuild the confidence of the general public."
The Assembly Committee on Transportation has scheduled a hearing on the testing controversy for Nov. 30.
Editor's note: This story was changed Nov. 23 to correct a quote by Sen. Bob Huff, "You sound very emphatic, that you know authoritatively that there have been only three instances" of fabricated data, Huff said to Dougherty.