When Governor Mitt Romney requested the resignation of Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew J. Amorello Friday, after revelations that Turnpike officials were told about leaks in Big Dig tunnels but did not move to repair them, Jordan Levy saw history repeating itself.
''It's all deja vu," Levy, the authority's vice chairman, said yesterday, three years after his own protracted battle with a governor, then-Acting Governor Jane Swift, who tried unsuccessfully to fire him. ''We've been here before."
Amorello refused to resign his post on Friday, saying he intends to finish what he started. Yesterday, several survivors of the last major shakeup at the Turnpike Authority said they doubt Romney can make a legal case for removing Amorello, based on the two-year-old Supreme Judicial Court ruling that confimed Levy and board member Christy Mihos in their positions after Swift tried to fire them for voting to delay a scheduled toll increase.
The court found that board members, while appointed by the governor, are not bound to carry out his policies.
The three-year-old standoff between the two board members and the acting governor disrupted the agency for months during Big Dig construction and drained momentum from the two men's efforts to tighten oversight of the project. Yesterday, both pointed to their attempt in 2001 to install an independent engineer to oversee the project management firm Bechtel/Parson Brinckerhoff as a potential turning point that might have led to the earlier discovery and repair of tunnel leaks. Instead, they said, it became a missed opportunity.
Their top pick for the job of independent engineer three years ago was Jack K. Lemley, an internationally known consultant who this fall was hired by the Turnpike Authority to investigate the massive leak sprung in September in the northbound tunnel. Independent engineers have since found evidence of more than 400 other leaks in the tunnel system, some of them in a dozen sections where major breaches may develop.
''It's like watching a train wreck -- you're trying to do something, alert someone, and no one will listen," said Mihos, who was replaced on the Turnpike board by Romney Transportation Secretary Dan Grabauskas when his term expired last summer. ''I feel extremely sad that it could have been avoided" by bringing Lemley on back in 2001. ''It would have made a huge difference."
Amorello was state highway commissioner when Swift named him full-time Turnpike Authority chairman in February 2002 in an attempt to bolster state control of escalating costs for the massive highway project. Mihos and Peter Pendergast, the Turnpike's former general counsel, criticized Amorello yesterday for failing to implement the independent engineer's position that the board had approved.
''Someone has to take responsibility for it," said Pendergast, who supported Mihos and Levy in their battle against Swift, and later resigned under pressure.
But others defended Amorello's record and faulted Romney for trying to make him a scapegoat for problems that began before his term.
Since taking over the board, Amorello has set up a cost recovery team to try to recoup millions in cost overruns from the Bechtel management firm, and hired a respected specialist, George Tamaro, to make recommendations, said Jim Aloisi, general counsel for the Turnpike from 1989 to 1996.
''By any test, he's done everything a manager could have done under the circumstances," Aloisi said.
Aloisi pointed out that the faulty construction in the northbound tunnel was in place well before Amorello took charge. The problem was described in a memo to a senior engineer at the Turnpike Authority in December 2001, two months before Amorello became chairman.
The governor must have cause to fire members of the Turnpike Authority, said Aloisi. In the 2002 case that reinstated Mihos and Levy, cause was defined as ''misfeasance, malfeasance, or willful neglect of duty," meaning that the member must have ''been close to a criminal act, or acting in a way where he consciously neglected his duty," he said. Legally, he said, any attempt to fire Amorello ''is a nonstarter, because you need cause."
The Legislature expanded the Turnpike board from three to five members in 2002, after the conflict with Swift. That had the effect of diluting the power of the members of the smaller board.