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Governor Mitt Romney announced at a press conference outside his State House office yesterday that his legal team had filed papers with the Supreme Judicial Court to remove Matthew J. Amorello from his post overseeing the troubled Big Dig project.
Governor Mitt Romney announced at a press conference outside his State House office yesterday that his legal team had filed papers with the Supreme Judicial Court to remove Matthew J. Amorello from his post overseeing the troubled Big Dig project. (Globe Staff Photo / George Rizer)

AG probes Big Dig firms; Romney rips Amorello

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has opened a fraud investigation of Big Dig contractors Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and Modern Continental Construction Co., focusing on what Reilly called poor oversight and shoddy work that left the tunnels plagued with leaks, defective walls, and damaged fireproofing.

Reilly disclosed the probe on a day of intense reaction to yesterday's Boston Globe story in which highly regarded tunnel engineer Jack K. Lemley, who led the investigation of the project's leaks, said he can no longer say with confidence that the Big Dig is safe to drive in.

Governor Mitt Romney said during a press conference that his legal team had filed papers with the Supreme Judicial Court, seeking to remove Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello from his $205,000-a-year post overseeing the project. Amorello would remain on the authority's board.

''Dealing with the Turnpike Authority over the past two years has been an incredibly frustrating experience," Romney said. ''I believe the Big Dig has been mismanaged, to the detriment of the public."

Romney said he is especially concerned about Lemley's statement that the Turnpike Authority had blocked his access to key documents and data related to the hundreds of leaks in the Big Dig's tunnels.

''This is intolerable," Romney said. Referring to Amorello, he said: ''The culture of obstruction and coverup starts at the very top."

Amorello, during his own press conference at Big Dig headquarters, said he has no plans to step down from his post.

''I have no intention of resigning," Amorello said. ''I was hired to do a job, to complete this project."

Amorello also disputed Lemley's assertion that he was denied documents, saying Lemley's contract with the Turnpike Authority ended Dec. 31 and as a result he was no longer entitled to review any official paperwork.

In a surprising development, however, several Democrats said they agreed with Romney that Lemley's statements raised serious concerns about Amorello's stewardship of the Turnpike Authority, and at least one, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, also called on Amorello to step down.

''This is now a public safety issue, and the only way to know the situation is to get access to these records," Galvin said. ''The shell game has got to end. And Amorello is the person in charge."

Yesterday, Senator Steven A. Baddour, Democrat of Methuen and cochairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, criticized Amorello for denying Lemley access to records.

Baddour also said he was surprised and outraged that Amorello had failed to renew Lemley's contract in December, as well as that of tunnel- wall specialist George J. Tamaro.

Lemley was brought on in late 2003 to assist retired Judge Edward M. Ginsburg's efforts to recoup money lost to Big Dig construction defects and mismanagement. Tamaro was hired last fall after a massive leak in the tunnel wall.

''At the end of the day, the Turnpike Authority doesn't have the credibility to stand up before the public to say these tunnels are safe," Baddour said. ''That's why we brought in Lemley and Tamaro."

Senator Mark C. Montigny, Democrat of New Bedford, said it now appears it is time to consider a bill filed by Romney that would merge the Turnpike Authority with the state Highway Department, which legislators have long resisted.

''The turnpike and Bechtel have grossly mismanaged this project, and the Pike has perhaps lived beyond its useful life," Montigny said. ''If there's some way to put politics aside, we should reopen the discussion with the governor."

Romney first called for Amorello to resign after Lemley, who was hired by the Turnpike Authority to investigate cost overruns on the project, said last November that there are hundreds of leaks riddling the Interstate 93 tunnels.

Lemley told Beacon Hill lawmakers on Nov. 30 that the tunnels are safe, but in a letter to Amorello March 9 withdrew that assessment, writing: ''I am now unable to express an opinion as to the safety of the I-93 portion of the Central Artery."

Lemley said in the letter that, since his testimony, new information has surfaced that has changed his view, including the discovery of more than 40 flawed tunnel-wall sections and water-damaged fireproofing. In addition, he said he was denied access to records pertaining to the problems.

Lemley did not return phone messages left by the Globe yesterday.

Yesterday, Romney also ordered the Mass. Highway, which he controls, to oversee an independent evaluation of the I-93 tunnel system's safety ''and to make sure that's carried out as soon as possible."

Reilly, meanwhile, said his fraud investigation would be carried out under the state's false claim act, which was established to root out corruption in government contracting. The statute makes it a crime for contractors to submit invoices or other demands for payments for work that was not done.

Contractors found guilty face a fine equal to three times the amount of the government loss due to the fraud. Reilly would not detail how it would apply in this case.

In an interview with the Globe last night, Reilly said the investigation began three weeks ago and that his office has demanded documents and data from both firms that relate to the leak problems. Launched as a civil investigation, the inquiry may develop into a full-blown criminal probe, Reilly said.

''It can be a criminal matter," Reilly said. ''Bechtel was hired to design it and oversee the management, including the work of Modern Continental, and they didn't do their job. That's where our focus is."

Reached last night, Andrew Paven, a spokesman for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, said he was unaware of an investigation and declined further comment.

Lorraine Marino, a spokeswoman for Modern Continental, said she too was unaware of the probe and declined comment.

Michael Kranish and Frank Phillips of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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