A firestorm of controversy has engulfed California’s Department of Transportation in the wake of revelations that a key Bay Bridge inspector had falsified inspections on other public projects.
In a report Nov. 13 built on review of 50,000 testing documents and interviews with more than 20 experts, The Sacramento Bee detailed fabrication of test results on other freeway structures by technician Duane Wiles, along with allegations of graft in the agency’s testing branch.
Federal Highway Administration
|The $6.3 billion project to replace the East Span of the Bay Bridge is the largest public works project in California history.|
The report documented that Wiles, who conducted structural integrity testing on the foundation of the $6.3 billion Bay Bridge project—the state’s largest public-works project ever—had been disciplined by Caltrans for fabricating test results on other projects.
3 Confirmed Cases
“In three confirmed cases, Caltrans documents show that he fabricated results,” the newspaper reported. “Wiles also routinely discarded raw data files that provide the best information to detect fabrications.”
The investigation found that Wiles had falsified inspections on a sign support in Oakland, an overpass in Riverside, and a freeway bridge in Los Angeles.
The newspaper also found that Wiles had failed to verify that his testing gauge was operating properly, as required by Caltrans, before he examined parts of the bridge. The report also documented claims by Wiles of more than 900 hours of overtime in three years.
Wiles conducted inspections on the foundation for the Bay Bridge’s signature tower in 2006 and 2007, but Caltrans officials say there is no evidence that he falsified those inspections.
Lack of Investigation Cited
Caltrans officials first learned of possible falsified tests in September 2008, when another department employee spotted inconsistent figures while evaluating Wiles’ data for a report, the newspaper reported. The employee urged his superiors to do a thorough investigation.
In April 2009, a supervisor issued a written reprimand to Wiles, accusing him of a “critical and inexcusable breach of ethics,” the Bee reported.
After that, Wiles was reassigned to a position involving soil testing and kept “on a short leash,” said Caltrans Acting Director Malcolm Dougherty. Dougherty said the agency began its first investigation within weeks of learning about possible problems.
Nevertheless, CalTrans never assessed Wiles’ work on the Bay Bridge tower until contacted recently by The Bee for comment, the newspaper said.
Inspector, Supervisor Fired
On Nov. 14—the day after the newspaper report—Caltrans announced that it had fired Wiles and his supervisor, Brian Liebich, head of the agency’s Foundation Testing Branch.
Caltrans denied, however, that the firings were related to the newspaper’s investigation, saying state and federal investigations into Wiles’ work had just been completed.
The Bee said other department officials had expressed concern that Liebich had not taken seriously enough allegations that Wiles had falsified reports, but Dougherty said Liebich had been fired for other activity reported by the Bee.
The newspaper reported that Liebich had directed technicians on state time and using state equipment to build, transport and install a steel gate and to build an A-frame structure on his property near Susanville.
Neither Wiles nor Liebich has commented publicly on the case.
Project Called Safe
Officials have repeatedly declared that the Bay Bridge project and all other structures inspected by Wiles are safe, but they have “refused to provide documentation that would validate their assertions,” the Bee reported.
“There has been absolutely no evidence of any kind of any falsification of any data involving the Bay Bridge,” Tony Anziano, Caltrans toll bridge program manager, said during a conference call with reporters.
Questioned later in the week by area transportation officials, Anziano said, “Nothing depends on a single person.”
Caltrans said it had reviewed all of Wiles’ work dating to 2004 and confirmed that he had falsified data only on the Oakland, Riverside and Los Angeles projects.
On the Los Angeles project, Caltrans said, Wiles falsified an inspection involved a retaining wall piling for an underpass below the 405 freeway. That falsification was caught during construction, and contractors replaced the piling, Dougherty said.
The other two cases revealed no safety issues, he told the Bee.
“We’ve deemed all those facilities safe,” Dougherty said.
‘Questionable Concrete Density’
In 2006 and 2007, Wiles tested the structural integrity of 13 buried concrete and steel pilings that hold up the tower for bridge’s East Span, which is scheduled to open in 2013.
In six cases, the Bee reported, “Wiles’ test results showed no significant problems, even though his colleagues found numerous sections of questionable concrete density that needed more scrutiny or repair.”
Wiles also did not check that his testing gauge was working properly before testing portions of the tower foundation. Dougherty said subsequent tests showed that the equipment was working properly.
The fallout from the revelations has been enormous, and numerous parties are demanding answers as the controversy continues to spread. Among the developments:
- Bay Area transportation officials have criticized Caltrans for not telling them earlier that Wiles was being investigated for falsifying inspection records on other projects. The foundation was completed even before Caltrans began investigating Wiles in 2008, said Steve Heminger, Bay Area Toll Authority Executive Director.
Had local officials known of the investigation, Heminger said Wednesday, they could have ordered a thorough re-inspection of the foundation before the massive steel legs of the tower were installed in July 2010.
“That tower was soaking in the sunshine in the bay all that time,” he told the Bee. “We could have been out there retesting.”
- The Toll Authority has also ordered an investigation by an independent peer review committee of structural experts.
The panel will review data collected by Wiles and other inspectors for Caltrans, separate inspections done by the contractor, and reports from engineers who monitored the construction, said Andrew Fremier, the Authority’s deputy executive director.
- The state’s Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee announced Tuesday that it had requested a formal, comprehensive review of the tower’s foundation by the state’s Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel.
The committee, established in 2004 to oversee seismic retrofit activities for the state’s toll bridges, is comprised of Heminger, Dougherty and California Transportation Commission Executive Director Bimla Rhinehart.
“It is essential that outside, independent technical experts undertake a thorough review of all the inspection documents, assess the integrity of the completed work, and make their findings public,” Heminger said in a written statement.
The review panel will hold its first meeting in December.
- Two state lawmakers are continuing to press for answers about the safety testing and about why Wiles was allowed to continue inspections after questions were raised about his work.
“California motorists should never have to wonder if their government has done everything possible to keep them safe,” said Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chairwoman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.
Mark DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said he planned to hold a hearing before the end of the year to examine whether the state conducted adequate structural testing on the Bay Bridge and other bridges throughout the state.
“It’s good knowing that there are redundancies and there have been other tests,” DeSaulnier told the Associated Press, “but it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to find out what went wrong.”