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Big Dig probe expanding

6 managers at concrete firm facing fraud charges

A widening Big Dig investigation will examine a range of companies' construction practices, authorities said yesterday, as they announced federal fraud charges against managers at the region's biggest concrete supplier in allegedly delivering inferior concrete that was used in tunnels, ramps, and roadways.

Six managers from Aggregate Industries NE Inc. were indicted in federal court on charges of running a conspiracy that delivered 5,000 truckloads of tainted concrete -- 1.2 percent of the concrete used on the entire project -- to the Big Dig over nine years. The managers used a web of falsified documents to cover up their ploy, federal prosecutors said.

US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said the investigation is in the early stages and did not rule out further indictments.

''I think we've just scratched the surface," Sullivan said, adding that other companies would face scrutiny now. ''I'm not confident that everybody else followed all the specifications and all the rules."

It was the most serious criminal accusation of wrongdoing in the controversial 15-year history of the $14.6 billion Central Artery/Tunnel project. The investigation was prompted by a lawsuit filed by a still-anonymous whistle-blower last year.

''This is bad; this is really bad," said state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. ''The taxpayers of Massachusetts and the United States did not get what they paid for."

Inadequate oversight may have allowed the conspiracy to thrive, Sullivan said. Inspectors for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority relied solely on paperwork provided by the Aggregate managers charged yesterday and never raised questions about the quality of the concrete, according to the indictment.

Faulty concrete was used in Big Dig walls, tunnels, and roadways, as well as at the Aquarium T stop, the indictment said.

The 135-count indictment described a brazen ploy: The Aggregate managers repeatedly passed off over-age concrete by simply adding water to make it seem fresh and falsifying documents to back up the claim. Concrete must be used within 90 minutes of being mixed, otherwise it begins to harden and may not solidify properly.

The structural impact on Big Dig tunnels was still under investigation.

''I have met with engineers and experts who have done an evaluation and an inspection," Reilly said. ''As we stand here today, we have no evidence that the structural integrity of the tunnel has been compromised."

Reilly said specialists say they are concerned that the substandard concrete will pose a ''long-term maintenance issue."

Aggregate said in a statement that the concrete it supplied had been extensively tested by industry specialists and that the company is satisfied that its product ''is structurally sound."

The firm also said that in the past year it ''has implemented stringent and industry-leading oversight standards to ensure that all company projects are in full compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations and that employees both understand and adhere to strict ethical guidelines."

Aggregate -- which is Swiss-owned but has its US headquarters in Bethesda, Md. -- suspended four of the indicted managers yesterday; two others have already resigned.

The managers indicted are: Robert Prosperi, 64, of Lynnfield; Gregory A. Stevenson, 53, of Furlong, Pa.; John J. Farrar, 43, of Canterbury, Conn.; Keith H. Thomas, 51, of Billerica; Gerard M. McNally, 54, of Rockland; and Marc Blais, 36, of Lynn.

They were charged with conspiracy to commit highway project fraud and mail fraud, conspiracy to defraud the government, making false statements, and mail fraud. They face up to 10 years imprisonment if convicted and up to $10 million each in fines.

All six pleaded not guilty and were released on $100,000 bail.

''There's no excuse for the commission of this crime, except greed," Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak told the magistrate during arraignment. Wyshak said taxpayers ''will be paying for years and years to come."

But defense lawyers later told reporters that the six men charged are hard-working and honest and will prove in court that they believed they provided quality concrete to the project.

Boston lawyer Richard Egbert, who represented Prosperi, said, ''I think there's not a shred of evidence that concrete delivered to the Big Dig was anything but of the finest condition."

Boston lawyer Thomas Kiley, who represents Blais and Thomas, described his clients as hourly workers who were under ''intense pressure" to produce large amounts of concrete for the Big Dig. He said they ''delivered only concrete they believed was fit for the project that it was being used for."

''Nobody is put at risk by the concrete that was delivered by our clients," Kiley said. ''They operated in good faith at all times, believing what they did was appropriate."

Stephen Delinsky, another Boston lawyer who represents McNally, said Big Dig officials had the ability to waive the 90-minute rule and had done so for long stretches of time, agreeing to take concrete that was up to two hours old. Sullivan declined to comment when asked whether he plans to bring civil or criminal charges against the company, in addition to the managers.

The charges raised questions about the project's quality control, a duty the Big Dig split between the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority workers and the project's private sector manager, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. The firm staffed a laboratory in South Boston to test the quality of concrete. Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff personnel also periodically made spot checks of the concrete mixing process at the plants, and conducted random tests at the Big Dig work site, according to interviews with project contractors.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff declined comment yesterday.

Sullivan and Reilly said the Turnpike Authority should have caught the problems. ''Clearly there's an oversight issue here," Sullivan said.

The indictment said the Aggregate managers took advantage of the fact that ''the MTA would rely upon the false batch reports to determine the quality and amount of concrete placed . . . as well as to document a basis for payment."

The Turnpike Authority declined yesterday to respond to questions about its oversight. The agency issued a statement saying it had ''worked cooperatively on this investigation with the agencies involved and will continue to offer any assistance needed."

''Any attempt by Aggregate Industries or any other entity to skirt the industry practices which ensure the public gets what they are paying for is completely unacceptable," the authority said.

The suspect concrete from Aggregate was used in the section of the Interstate 93 tunnel that sprung a gushing leak in September 2004. Project officials blamed that leak on a pocket of extraneous material, gravel or sand, that became embedded in the wall.

Federal officials cautioned yesterday that the suspect concrete had not been linked to the leaks.

''The evidence clearly shows that bad loads went to panels that subsequently leaked," said Sullivan. ''At this point, we can't say that the concrete in and of itself is responsible for the leaks."

Governor Mitt Romney issued a scathing comment on the indictments. ''No one in Massachusetts should be surprised to learn that a project so badly mismanaged, over budget, and grossly delayed is now also facing allegations of criminal misbehavior," he said.

Sean Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

 Big Dig probe expanding (By Raja Mishra and Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff, 5/5/06)
Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: The indictment
 Subpar material could add to woes on tunnel project (By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff, 5/5/06)
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