More Big Dig charges brought

Contractor is said to hide tunnel flaws

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sean P. Murphy and Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / June 21, 2008

The US Attorney's office in Boston yesterday brought a raft of criminal charges against the Big Dig's largest contractor, saying it knew that bolts were coming loose in the ceiling of the Interstate 90 tunnel but glossed over the problem until panels came crashing down in 2006, killing motorist Milena Del Valle.

The government also accused the company, Modern Continental Corp., of systematically cheating on the bills for labor and materials it submitted. And it said a water-gushing wall breach in 2004 was a result of shoddy concrete workmanship, which it said Modern Continental knew about but ignored.

Prosecutors said they brought the charges late yesterday after plea negotiations with the company broke down. The company denied the accusations in a statement issued last night, calling them "completely unfounded and without merit."

The company said in the statement that it had performed its work according to contract plans and specifications.

"The charges represent an attempt after the fact to criminalize actions that were either approved by the project manager and state authorities or represented bookkeeping errors that the company ultimately addressed," the statement said.

If convicted, Modern Contintental faces criminal fines of up to $500,000 for each of the 49 counts of making false statements, submitting phony time and materials slips, and wire fraud that were brought - or $24.5 million in all. Its financial exposure could be even greater if it is forced to pay restitution for its deficient work. No individual executives or employees were charged in the case.

Authorities say Modern Continental routinely passed off flawed craftsmanship as adequate and accepted full payment for its work on the $15 billion project when the company knew its performance was actually deficient, according to documents filed by prosecutors in US District Court yesterday.

US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said the company would have to pay a high price, if convicted.

"You're talking about tens of millions of dollars, conservatively," he said in an interview last night. "Sadly, a tragedy occurred with the ceiling collapse, and there's no charge that the federal government could bring, and no amount of recovery that we could collect, that's ever going to make those families whole."

"Companies don't go to prison," he added. "People go to prison. Companies pay fines and then suffer some other consequences as a result of a federal conviction."

Sullivan also issued a brief statement through a spokeswoman saying that "considering the extent of the inspections and review since the collapse of the tunnel ceiling, we have no reason to believe that the public is not safe." Since the collapse, the state has inspected and repaired ceiling bolts throughout the tunnel system.

Del Valle was a 38-year-old Jamaica Plain mother crushed when tons of concrete came tumbling down on the car driven by her husband on July 10, 2006. The charges allege that Modern Continental knew the anchor bolts-and-epoxy system used to hold up the ceiling was faulty, but did not correct it.

Modern Continental "was aware, through documents in its possession concerning the epoxy it used to install the concrete anchors, that the epoxy it used in the I-90 tunnel was not appropriate for long-term loads like the ceiling panels," the criminal information says.

Modern Continental and Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which managed the design and construction process, were aware during construction that the anchor bolts were slipping out under the weight of the ceiling, and between 1999 and 2003 made several attempts to determined the cause and to fix the problem.

"Neither Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff nor [Modern Continental] ever determined the cause of the failing bolts," the criminal information says. Under a joint state-federal settlement in January, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff avoided criminal jeopardy by paying $450 million.

Yesterday's charges also say Modern Continental overlooked flaws when its workers poured the concrete that makes up the walls of the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Tunnel, including defects in the spot that burst open in 2004 allowing 300 gallons of water a minute to gush into the road.

Modern Continental managers identified in December 2001 a "large defect and leak" in the wall that later opened up but the defect "was never repaired," according to the criminal information.

Federal prosecutors say they determined that Modern Continental did not properly fill out 210 of 230 forms documenting concrete work in the section of tunnel it built between Congress and High streets. That showed the company was involved in "systemic failure" to meet specifications, the criminal information says.

Besides the shoddy work, the company is accused of engaging in a scheme to overbill the project by claiming pay for workers classified as experienced "journeymen," when they were in fact apprentices. Prosecutors did not disclose the total costs of the alleged padded billing.

Modern Continental joins one other company charged criminally in connection with the death of Del Valle. Powers Fasteners, the New York-based supplier of the bolts-and-epoxy support system used to hold up the ceiling panels, stands charged with manslaughter by the state. Those charges were brought last year by state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Lawyers for the Del Valle family praised the US Attorney for bringing the charges yesterday, but said federal prosecutors have been making the family's civil suit more difficult by preventing them from interviewing some witnesses while the fedreral probe continues.

"We're glad they are pursuing these kinds of claims," said Brad Henry, who represents Del Valle's children. "The family can't get to the bottom of what happened if we can't take testimony."

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