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Panel sought for recouping Big Dig costs

Bill would take duty away from Pike authority

By Raphael Lewis and Sean P. Murphy, Globe Staff, 06/23/2003

State lawmakers, appalled that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has recouped just $35,707 for millions of dollars in Big Dig management errors, will file a bill today to strip the agency of its cost-recovery responsibilities and hand the task to an independent group dominated by project critics.

The legislation, sponsored by Senator Marc R. Pacheco, would create a seven-member commission whose sole mission would be to scrutinize the $2 billion in construction and design overruns on the project, then forward them to the state attorney general or the US attorney for civil litigation.

The bill would bring "integrity and honesty back to this public works project, which has been known to millions as the Big Dig, and also as a big boondoggle," said Pacheco, the Taunton Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Post Audit and Oversight committee, which would oversee the commission's work.

If the legislation passes, the unpaid commission would have a $1 million budget provided by the Turnpike, and subpoena powers to compel Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the Big Dig's private-sector managers, to produce documents and testimony. It would be given until the end of next year to find cases to pursue.

The body would be chaired by a Massachusetts law school dean, and include an accountant trained in fraud detection, the state auditor, the inspector general, the secretary of state, a representative of the Federal Highway Administration, and a member of the administration of Governor Mitt Romney.

As if to underscore Beacon Hill's displeasure with the Turnpike's oversight of the $14.6 billion Big Dig, the bill would create the first commission in state history with veto power over an agency such as the Turnpike, backers say. But Secretary of State William F. Galvin and other proponents say such strong action is necessary if the state ever hopes to hold Bechtel/Parsons accountable for errors or poor decisions.

"I think this is long overdue, particularly in light of the fact that the recovery activity has been so anemic to the point of absurdity," Galvin said.

A spokesman for Turnpike Chairman Matthew J. Amorello, who took over the agency 11 years into the Big Dig, called the commission proposal a "win-win" for the agency and taxpayers, adding that Amorello called for such a body when he testified at legislative hearings earlier this year.

But Amorello never proposed surrendering his oversight of cost-recovery, saying the Turnpike has the necessary institutional knowledge and memory to accomplish the task.

The push to reinvigorate Big Dig cost-recovery efforts began in February, after a Globe series reported that roughly $1 billion in Big Dig cost overruns could be tied to Bechtel's errors or poor decisions -- such as pushing forward with construction when designs were woefully incomplete, or when site research was inadequate.

The series also found that the Turnpike's cost-recovery team, when it met at all, rarely examined the potential culpability of Bechtel, and usually relied on Bechtel officials to pass judgment on its own efforts. The firm has yet to pay one cent for its errors.

Bechtel officials vigorously deny that the firm has made any errors for which it could be held financially responsible. But spokesman Andrew Paven said the firm believes the creation of an independent commission would serve all parties involved. "We have always said we support a professional and objective review process," Paven said.

While the Globe series assigned a dollar value to errors, it did not attempt to discern how much of the $1 billion in overruns could be recouped by such a commission. The series pointed out that a contractor-friendly statute of limitations on pursuing cost-recovery cases would greatly impede such an effort, prompting the Legislature to unanimously pass a bill, signed promptly by Romney, that extended the limit by 10 years.

Even with that extension, and the creation of the commission, State Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci said he does not have high hopes that the new body would recover anything close to $1 billion.

"My opinion, deep down inside: I don't think it's going to be an easy effort to come up with a significant amount of money because the state has signed off on a lot of these" overruns, DeNucci said. "It's going to be difficult to determine if a lot of money can be recovered, and who's ultimately responsible. And we're dealing with some sharp people here."

Other state officials were more upbeat about the commission's chances. State Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, whose office has issued several reports critical of the Turnpike and Bechtel, said the commission would be "made up of a very hawkish group, a group that has already made clear it wants to get as much money back from Bechtel as possible.

The governor and legislative leaders have both called for the creation of a new cost-recovery process divorced from the Turnpike, but they offered differing visions of how to achieve that goal.

Romney initially called for a similar commission, but one that would oversee a company working on contingency fee basis to ferret out errors.

The Pacheco legislation would instead rely largely on the Turnpike's current cost-recovery team, which Amorello appointed earlier this year. According to the legislation, the new commission would work with the Turnpike's legal team for eight months, at which point it could sever the relationship and undertake its own review if the commission determines that Amorello's three-lawyer team is not up to the task.

"If there's an opportunity for success, it would be wasteful for us to let work we've already paid for not come to some type of result," Pacheco said of continuing to work with the Turnpike. "But, quite frankly, it is in the interest of all the entities at the table to do the best job possible to recover costs at the Big Dig."

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