An investigation by the California Highway Patrol found insufficient evidence that Caltrans officials retaliated against employees or contractors who complained about quality lapses in welding work performed by a Chinese company that was critical to construction of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Investigators said poor communication and documentation of the project by bridge officials caused distrust and confusion, and fed concerns that improper actions occurred.
“While the California Highway Patrol found no violation of law, it identified past management shortfalls that must be addressed,” said California State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly in a written statement. He asked Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty to “make necessary changes to the management structure of the bridge to improve project oversight” by Dec. 1.
In a written statement to The Bee, Dougherty said he would do so.
“I appreciate the diligence of the CHP in conducting the investigation into accusations of retaliation or retribution and am pleased that they found a lack of evidence to support either,” Dougherty wrote. “I treat the additional findings of ‘poor internal communication and management practices’ seriously and will take any appropriate actions needed to improve the oversight of this project.”
The CHP’s administrative probe involved 13 investigators who interviewed more than 50 witnesses, none of whom were named in the report. It stemmed from allegations of wrongdoing, made at a January state Senate hearing, involving contract administration and quality assurance on the new bridge. The hearing addressed the handling of welds for large portions of the roadway and iconic tower for the suspension span segment, and whether Caltrans violated the Public Records Act or Whistleblower Protection Act.
Over the last three years, The Sacramento Bee has reported numerous construction lapses on the bridge project, including cracks in welds performed by a Chinese company. The CHP report did not address construction quality or safety issues on the new span.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee who chaired the January hearing, said in an interview that actions by bridge managers addressed by the CHP “may be legal, but that doesn’t mean they are right.”
“Part of the problem with this investigation is that the laws aren’t strong enough,” he said. DeSaulnier, who is running for Congress and will leave state office in January, said he would urge colleagues in the Legislature to look at strengthening the public records and whistleblower acts in light of the CHP findings.
He said he would forward his committee’s investigation about management of the bridge project to California Attorney General Kamala Harris this month, with a recommendation that she launch a criminal investigation.
Megaprojects are always challenging, DeSaulnier said, but the litany of construction and management problems with the $6.5 billion Bay Bridge – including this week’s revelations that water has contaminated rods that connect the tower to its foundation – have been extraordinary.
“I don’t think California can do big projects like this under the current circumstances,” he said.
The CHP probe stemmed partly from testimony by James Merrill, formerly a top manager for a Caltrans contractor in China, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc. He told senators that his company lost its Caltrans contract overseeing materials quality for the bridge after he informed Caltrans managers about hundreds of serious quality lapses by the Chinese contractor that built much of the new span, Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., known as ZPMC.
Merrill said he was told by a top Caltrans manager to look the other way when he saw certain kinds of weld cracks, even though they were prohibited by the welding code and the bridge contract.
Caltrans engineer Douglas Coe told senators in January that Tony Anziano, the new span’s chief executive, said to ignore possible weld flaws to avoid delaying the job. Anziano said at the hearing that he later reassigned Coe, out of concern that Coe had adversarial relations with the job contractors.
Merrill and Coe have consistently declined requests for interviews.
A Bee investigation, published in June, validated many of their claims, based on Caltrans documents from the bridge project and interviews with other engineers who worked on the job in China. The Bee found that Caltrans managers knowingly allowed flawed welds to remain in the bridge, and sometimes acquiesced to ZPMC’s open defiance of normal quality assurance practices.
Regarding both the Merrill and Coe concerns, the CHP report found that problems in communication might have led some employees and contractors to believe officials had acted improperly. But it said the evidence did not support a conclusion that Caltrans officials had, in fact, violated the law.
“The investigation revealed there was insufficient evidence to support a claim of collusion, or an effort to select other than the most qualified firm” in the contract competition that Merrill’s company lost, according to the CHP report.
Caltrans and a number of expert consultants eventually studied the weld problems. The new span’s chief engineer, Brian Maroney, said cracks were allowed to remain unrepaired only in areas regarded as safe. Other engineering experts have disputed that conclusion.
Coe and Merrill also testified at the January hearing that Anziano discouraged complete record-keeping and blocked finalization of some documents to prevent disclosure of compromising materials under the state Public Records Act – a charge Anziano denied.
The CHP report found that Anziano often emphasized verbal instead of written communications. But investigators found no evidence, it said, that his intent was to illegally conceal information.
“While no direct evidence of intent to subvert the PRA could be established, the actions taken or omitted on this project have provided a foundation to fuel perceptions to the contrary,” the CHP concluded.