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JOAN VENNOCHI

Mitt caught in the act

MITT ROMNEY said he is watching over Big Dig repairs "with the eye of an eagle."

But, an eagle can't see Massachusetts from Iowa or miscellaneous Republican primary states -- and neither can Romney.

He is an absentee governor, with an eagle eye on Washington, not Boston. The road to the White House, not the $15 billion roadway in and out of Boston, commands his attention.

As one consequence, the fox still guards the Big Dig hen house.

Yes, Bechtel and friends were called in to supervise the repair of the Big Dig tunnel where a woman died and the quality of their past work is under investigation. A Bechtel source said that even some of the company's top executives wondered what the Romney administration was thinking when it tapped six Bechtel inspectors for this job.

Romney grabbed power over the Big Dig after tons of concrete fell from a tunnel ceiling, crushing Milena Del Valle to death last July. It turned out the Big Dig was riddled with safety hazards connected to design and construction decisions. The governor promised accountability, transparency, professionalism, and, above all, an end to the insidious hold of project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff.

He got rid of Matthew Amorello, the Turnpike Authority chairman Romney blamed for everything bad about the Big Dig from the day he became governor. He put his transportation secretary, John Cogliano, in charge. But no one got rid of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff -- the same outfit that Romney said last August "isn't real credible on safety."

It's amazing. Romney is running for president, using his response to the Big Dig crisis to showcase his management skills. Yet, part of his administration's response was to give Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff a new $8 million contract extension. There are also questions about whether his administration told bondholders the truth when Romney officials said they were conducting ongoing safety examinations of Big Dig tunnels.

This time, there's no Amorello to kick around. This time, Romney is blaming Cogliano and a rush to get the tunnels repaired. "I wouldn't have done that. I think it was a mistake," said Romney, as if he were some powerless observer instead of the chief executive who chose Cogliano for the job and told citizens of this Commonwealth, "I'm happy to take blame if I have responsibility."

Massachusetts now understands Romney's act. Give him a bank of TV cameras and appropriate props -- a hard hat, magic markers, undercut bolt anchors, and a glossary of engineering terms -- and he's looking good. That's what happened when the tunnel's ceiling collapse became a national news story. Romney stalked the roadways in an orange safety vest, promising an independent "stem-to-stern review." Once the cameras left, so did Romney.

In the latest Globe poll, 54 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable view of Romney as governor. The Massachusetts view of the Romney regime hurts Kerry Healey, the lieutenant governor who is trying to succeed Romney as governor. She is part of an administration that postured for political gain, that cared about power, not performance.

Will the Big Dig hurt Romney on the national campaign trail? It should, if voters look beyond the surface of Romney's act.

They should already understand some of what the Romney act means. To win election here, he moderated his views on social issues such as abortion and stem cell research. Then, to gain credibility on the national Republican stand, he planted himself firmly on the right -- perhaps until it suits his purpose to moderate those views once again.

The Romney act also adds up to a candidate who talked about governing and a governor who never did. There's a real disappointment here about Romney. He is smart, can be engaging, and is obviously skilled at synthesizing large amounts of complex information, as he did during the Big Dig crisis. Even many Democrats believe that if he ever really tried, he could have been good at the job. But he never really tried. And that is true in the biggest crisis his administration faced, the tunnel collapse that killed Del Valle. Besides the tragic loss of human life, the Big Dig debacle also killed public confidence and tied up Boston traffic in knots.

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. When it comes to Romney, we've got the eye of an eagle here in Massachusetts.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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