Patrick voices support for Mullan, but wants answers

Jeffrey Mullan said a review is underway. Jeffrey Mullan said a review is underway.
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 12, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that he was troubled by a top Big Dig engineer’s declaration that state employees do not put problematic information in writing, apparently to avoid a paper trail that could trigger a lawsuit or damaging news stories.

But Patrick declined to criticize the secretary of transportation, Jeffrey B. Mullan, saying the department’s embattled leader still has his confidence. Even though an outside consultant compared the culture at Mullan’s agency to the Nixon White House, Patrick said he was relying on Mullan to get to the root of the problem.

Helmut Ernst, an engineer who oversees the Big Dig, told the Globe in a story published Sunday that he was trained to avoid documenting problems in writing after the 2006 tunnel ceiling collapse that killed Milena Del Valle - a practice that Patrick said may violate Massachusetts Department of Transportation policy.

“The policy is right. The policy exists. The question is whether people are abiding by that policy,’’ Patrick said. “It does not give me the kind of confidence that I should have, and I think the public should have, to have the chief engineer reportedly saying what he said.’’

The Globe reported Sunday that the collapse of a 110-pound light fixture in one of the Big Dig tunnels on Feb. 8 represented a bigger threat to public safety than Mullan has acknowledged. Within days of the fixture’s collapse, inspectors found nine other light fixtures that were so corroded that they could have also collapsed. But the engineers in charge, including Ernst, did not file a written report on the incident as required by state policy, and Mullan said he did not find out about the problem for a month. The public did not learn about the overhead hazard until March 16.

“We have been trained not to’’ put things in writing, Ernst said in Sunday’s Globe. “After all the depositions in the ceiling collapse case, we just meet and talk about it. . . . What’s the point of putting it in writing? Things happen every day. You don’t need a record. You need time to operate, too.’’

Patrick said he would leave it to Mullan, his neighbor in Milton, to question Ernst as to whether his published comments were accurately portrayed and in context. Ernst did not return a message left yesterday requesting comment from the Globe. Mullan acknowledged a review is underway, but declined to discuss details, calling it a personnel issue.

Patrick spoke about the issue after a ceremony in his office in which he signed the $30.6 billion annual state budget. Five of Patrick’s Cabinet secretaries attended, but Mullan was not among them.

On March 25, days after the light fixture collapse was made public, Patrick said Mullan “has felt the burn himself, from me, meaning that I’ve been very clear that I will not accept this again.’’

But Patrick’s continued support of Mullan following the latest revelations has not put the issue to rest on Beacon Hill. Yesterday, Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, demanded hearings into the matter so he could question Mullan directly.

In a letter to Senator Thomas McGee, cochairman of the Transportation Committee, Hedlund said he is “deeply concerned about public safety’’ on the state’s road’s and bridges. Hedlund cited the transportation agency for a lack of communication and accused it of intentionally misleading the public.

“With independent reports citing a communication breakdown in the Transportation Department, and the lack of reports currently being done, the public is deeply concerned about the direction of the agency, as am I,’’ he wrote.

Mullan posted a note on his government blog yesterday, assuring the public that the tunnels are safe. He also said he was concerned about the comments made in the Globe that employees are reluctant to make written reports, saying it “does not reflect MassDOT policy or my own expectations.’’

In a brief phone interview, Mullan said he has worked to change his department‘s culture since he began leading a merger of state agencies in 2009. The mega-department overseen by Mullan includes more than 4,000 employees who had worked at the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and several other former road and bridge agencies.

“Anyone who’s followed us knows we’ve worked tirelessly on workplace culture and we continue to,’’ Mullan said. “A long period of a bad culture doesn’t get fixed in 18 months.’’

Mullan said in his blog and in a statement released by his department that “there is zero tolerance’’ for a failure to make written reports of public safety problems.

A consultant hired by the agency wrote in March about a culture at the agency “where nobody says anything, even when they know they should.’’

Asked about that report, and whether the culture is more widespread than Ernst, Patrick said, “I’m concerned about any of those kinds of comments.’’

“We’re very clear that the policy is a policy of candor with the public and [of] prompt response,’’ Patrick said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.