n a move to recover tens of millions of dollars in mistakes made by the Big Dig's private-sector managers, Secretary of State William F. Galvin drew up legislation yesterday to allow pursuit of thousands of cases now off-limits because of the statute of limitations.
The bill, to be submitted to the Legislature today, would give state lawyers up to 10 years after the Big Dig is finished in 2005 to investigate errors made since the earliest days of the project, which began in 1986. Currently, as many as two-thirds of the $1.6 billion in cost overruns are barred by statute because they occurred more than six years ago.
''The state is not powerless to stop this malpractice and misfeasance,'' Galvin said of mistakes made by the project's managers, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. ''All other actions have been unsuccessful, so we need some more time.''
Bechtel/Parsons spokesman Andrew Paven declined to comment on the pending legislation.
Galvin found two sponsors in the Senate, Robert S. Creedon Jr., the Brockton Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and committee member Michael W. Morrissey of Quincy, a Democrat. And state Representative Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he had not seen the legislation, but was ''supportive of legislation that is designed to recoup costs that are owed to the Commonwealth.''
Morrissey said he was happy to help in the effort to get back money from the Big Dig's managers.
''It makes a lot of sense to us,'' he said. ''The only people we're trying to help is the Commonwealth.''
Meanwhile, Governor Mitt Romney yesterday personally called Bechtel's president and asked that he fly to Boston immediately to explain the firm's performance, an administration official said.
Doug Foy, the state's chief of Commonwealth development, said Romney made the call to Adrian Zaccaria, president and chief operating officer of the Bechtel Group, following disclosures in a series of Globe stories about the Big Dig.
Zaccaria will arrive next week, Foy said.
''We owe it to the citizens of Massachusetts'' to get answers from Bechtel on cost overruns, Foy said.
At a news briefing yesterday, Romney also lashed out at the state's overseers of the $14.6 billion project, saying he was appalled that more had not been done to collect money lost in mistakes made by Bechtel and partner Parsons Brinckerhoff.
''I find it extraordinary that there wasn't an ongoing aggressive effort to ensure that not a single dollar of overbilling occurred, and that any expense we could recoup was recouped,'' said Romney, who has faced a massive budget deficit since taking office last month.
Also yesterday, former project officials disclosed that Bechtel's contracts were never signed ''under seal,'' a marker placed on the signature page of public contracts that would extend the statute of limitations for flawed work to 20 years, according to state laws.
Peter M. Zuk, the Big Dig's former project director and a lawyer, said the seal is an antiquated vestige that's little used in common practice. He said none of Bechtel's contracts include such a seal as a result.
But Galvin said he was amazed that the project had not applied such a seal, which left the public with either a three- or six-year window to pursue cost recovery, depending on whether it's a breach of contract or a negligence claim.
''It's hard for me to believe they didn't put them under seal,'' Galvin said. ''But my legislation will make that irrelevant. It will give us more time.''
The bill, which would amend Chapter 260 of the state's general laws, would allow state lawyers to pursue any claims of flawed construction management or designs related to the Big Dig, including nearby MBTA projects. The bill would push the statute of limitations to as far as 10 years beyond the Big Dig's completion, which is slated for mid-2005.
Morrissey said he was confident that the bill would find plenty of support on Beacon Hill, despite the vigorous lobbying efforts that he expected Bechtel and other contractors to apply to lawmakers.
''I think it's a reasonable expectation, given this is the largest public works project in the country,'' he said. ''We're trying to recoup some of the overruns. It doesn't appear to be a lot of money coming back, so we need every avenue that could be open to us.''
In recent months, several states have contemplated similar legislation in an attempt to allow victims of clergy sex abuse to come forward and file claims. California has already passed such a bill.
In Massachusetts, two recent cases in the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the right of the Legislature to change the statute of limitations.
In a 1989 case, which involved a lawsuit brought by the city of Boston against asbestos manufacturer Keene Corp., the court held that the Legislature was not barred by the state constitution from extending the statute of limitations for cities wishing to bring suit for health problems. And a 1997 case held that lawmakers could extend the statute for a private citizen wishing to file a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a flawed contraceptive device.
Foy said Romney, too, was eager to begin the process of determining how much money Bechtel owed the state.
''We want them [Bechtel] to move quickly because we are not going to sit on our hands and wait for weeks and months before we initiate our own review,'' Foy said in an interview.
Raphael Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.