Settlement Reached Over VT Bridge Allegations
The U.S Attorney General’s Office recently announced that it has reached a civil settlement with contractor J.A. McDonald, Inc. over allegations that it defectively built four bridges in Vermont between 2008 and 2010.
According to the release, JAM employees allegedly altered bridge components by cutting or burning multiple sections of reinforcing steel out of the reinforced concrete substructures. The lawsuit also states that JAM took steps to hide the alterations from the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
An investigation was announced following a whistleblower complaint in 2018. The four bridges in question involve two in Bennington, Vermont, on Route 279, and two bridges on Interstate 91 in Guildford, Vermont.
“Public infrastructure projects in the United States must be constructed with care and diligence,” stated Acting United States Attorney Jonathan A. Ophardt. “When contractors recklessly disregard public safety and squander tax dollars, the United States Attorney’s Office will aggressively investigate and hold them accountable.”
“This settlement agreement concludes over two years of work recognizing that there be full accountability for the work performed on behalf of taxpayers,” said Vermont Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn.
Announced at the end of August 2019, VTrans stated that it would be actively investigating the non-conforming construction services by contractor J.A. McDonald, Inc. pertaining to four bridges previously constructed by the company.
“Safety is the number-one concern of this agency and has been our top concern in this matter,” said Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn in an VTrans press release at the time.
“While there is no immediate public safety concern, the agency will aggressively investigate any actions that allegedly violate our contracts, threaten the integrity of our infrastructure or undermine the public trust.”
As a response to the allegations, JAM noted that the bridges in question were built while the company was under different ownership and that they plan to fully cooperate in the investigation.
“J.A. McDonald is a small Vermont company with a long history of quality construction for the state of Vermont and other clients,” Eric Boyden, president of JAM said in a statement. “We have pledged transparency and our assistance to the State, and will work with the AOT to address any issues discovered.”
During the investigation, VTrans engineers were instructed to evaluate the bridges in question. Although VTrans determined that the structures posed no immediate safety concerns, the agency also hired an engineering consultant to review the project designs and analyze impacts.
Using ground-penetrating radar and ultrasonic tests, in addition to visual examinations, all four bridges were confirmed to be safe and remain safe to full traffic capacity. However, the longevity of the structures was affected, shortening the traditional lifespan of 75-100 years to 50-75 years.
Since the investigation, JAM has been made aware of the state’s intent to pursue legal recourse under the state’s laws prohibiting fraudulent activities and false claims, and has been informed that it will no longer be eligible to work on additional VTrans projects or on projects using VTrans grant funds.
The state is also reviewing potential contract claims and will work to mitigate the impacts of this ongoing investigation and ensuing legal action on the communities.
According to VTDigger, prior to the state’s ruling on JAM’s involvement with VTrans contracts, the company was already under contract with VTrans regarding two other projects in Vermont. Awards for the projects are also reported to have been awarded prior to the confirmed allegations.
Because halting construction would cause significant and expensive delays, the agency has stated that additional oversight would be assigned to JAM “to ensure the integrity of the work meets the contract requirements.”
JAM was reportedly paid $29 million in federal funds for construction in the bridges, which VTrans stated that they “unwittingly” paid the contractor for deficient bridgework.
According to the Department of Justice, the contractor has agreed to pay $637,500 to the United States and the State of Vermont to resolve allegations that it violated the federal False Claims Act and the Vermont False Claims Act.
In addition to the settlement amount, JAM has agreed as part of an administrative settlement and compliance agreement with the Federal Highway Administration to implement the following remedial measures:
VTDigger reports that the company was not involved in repairs for the bridge’s long-term safety, and that the cost of remedial work was recovered through the settlement.
The DOJ added that the agreement does not constitute as an admission of liability by JAM or that federal officials concede that the claims asserted were not well founded. The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont, in partnership with the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and VTrans.
JAM also settled allegations in 2017 that it installed a bridge over the New Haven River in Vermont with deficient materials in 2014. The contractor paid $270,000 in settlement to the State of Vermont, FHWA and the U.S. Treasury Department, as the project was federally funded under the Federal Aid Highway Program.