Wednesday, May 25, 2005

AN INTERESTING WRINKLE. "Strike Three for Pendergast?" Perhaps not. I write this not to settle anything, but to suggest that there are still questions needing answers.

Last November 15, Peter Pendergast, former general counsel for the Mass Turnpike Authority, wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe charging that much-needed reforms of the Big Dig never took place because, in 2001, then-governor Jane Swift agreed with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff not to pursue such a course of action.

Instead, Pendergast wrote, she fired authority members Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy, and installed Matt Amorello as the chairman. Among other things, Pendergast charged that Swift walked away from a demand by the authority that Bechtel/Parsons pay $250 million in "reparations" for its alleged mismanagement of the project.

Unfortunately, Pendergast's column has disappeared into the Globe's paid archives. But here is a key excerpt:

A month before Swift's firings, her office had asked about purported plans by the Turnpike Board to terminate Bechtel/Parsons for mismanagement. Just after 7 a.m. on Oct. 9, Turnpike CEO Richard Capka called me at home. Capka said he had just spoken to Steve Crosby, Swift's secretary of administration and finance, who had told him that Bechtel had contacted Swift at her home in North Adams and voiced concerns that the Turnpike Board would terminate the company at the board's meeting two days later. As general counsel, I informed Capka that I had no knowledge of such a plan.

One day later, Swift again intervened on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons and undermined the Turnpike Authority's ongoing negotiations with the company. The negotiations included issues of restructuring of Big Dig management, and a demand for reparations from Bechtel/Parsons in the amount of $250 million.

Within days, Swift, Crosby, and a third official, Jack Lemley, wrote letters to the Globe charging that Pendergast had his facts wrong. Among other things, Swift wrote:

I never had any conversation with any Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff employee on any matter, including the company's work as construction manager for the Big Dig.

I never informed Steve Crosby or any other individual that I had such a conversation.

I never intervened on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons in any negotiations with the Turnpike Authority.

I never instructed or directed in any way any member of the governor's staff or any other individual to intervene on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons in any Turnpike Authority negotiations. Indeed, my instructions to my staff were to the contrary.

Here is an excerpt from Crosby's letter:

Acting Governor Swift never called me on Oct. 9, 2001 - or any other time - to inquire about the Turnpike Board's considering terminating the contract of Bechtel/Parsons to oversee the Big Dig.

- I did not call or speak to project manager Richard Capka early on the morning of Oct. 9. And I never spoke to him to question him about the Turnpike board's terminating the company.

- Neither Governor Swift not anyone else from her office met with Bechtel/Parsons on Oct. 9 to discuss its possible termination.

- I was not asked by Swift to take any action on behalf of, at the behest of, or in the interest of Bechtel/Parsons; nor did I take any action on my own volition.

Pendergast falsely alleges that I - either on my own or at Swift's behest - intervened on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons to protect the company from "management reform" initiatives by the Turnpike Authority board.

Lemley offers a related complaint.

At the time, I looked at Pendergast's piece and the three letters and wrote an item wondering whether Pendergast's op-ed should have been more carefully vetted. "Strike Three for Pendergast?" was the headline I stuck on the item, in which I concluded: "The Pendergast column - how much of it is true, how much isn't, what sort of editing it went through - would be an excellent topic" for the Globe's ombudsman.

But the questions raised still haven't been answered. Last Friday, Ann Donlan reported in the Boston Herald on Swift's testimony in a lawsuit brought by Mihos over the firing. Donlan dwelled largely on Swift's odd practice of identifying herself as "Winthrop Murray Crane" in her e-mail correspondence. But there was also this:

Swift testified that she was unaware that the president and CEO of Bechtel Group Inc., Adrian Zaccaria, had written her an Oct. 8, 2001, letter to express concern that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was considering canceling the project manager's contract because of cost overruns.

The Turnpike, according to information in the deposition, had demanded $250 million in "reparations" from the company.

Stephen P. Crosby, Swift's secretary of administration and finance, met privately with Bechtel representatives. "I didn't become aware of that meeting until after the fact," Swift testified.

Crosby, who could not be reached for comment, "believed that Bechtel might leave, and that would jeopardize the financing and orderly management of the project," Swift said.

Interesting, no? There's also old evidence that tends to support Pendergast's version of events. On February 11, 2003, long before Pendergast's op-ed ran, Globe reporters Raphael Lewis and Sean Murphy reported:

The Turnpike Authority's lawyers set up two sessions to negotiate a possible refund with Bechtel on Oct. 9, 2001, one to take place at 9 a.m., the other at 3 p.m. The lawyers were demanding tens of millions of dollars, enough to put off toll hikes needed to pay down Big Dig debts. Top Bechtel executives flew in with a surprising offer: The company would give the state up to $50 million, according to two people who attended the first negotiating session.

Turnpike Authority lawyers said they left the morning meeting hopeful that at last Bechtel would pay for some of its mistakes.

What they did not know was that Bechtel's newly hired lobbyist, Andrew Paven, had been busy working his connections with the state's political elite. Paven arranged for Bechtel executives to go directly from the first negotiating session into a meeting with Acting Governor Jane M. Swift's chief of staff and the secretary of administration and finance [presumably Crosby, though he is not named in the article].

The afternoon bargaining session with the Turnpike lawyers never took place. After sitting down with Swift's two top aides, Bechtel rescinded its offer to refund to the state up to $50 million. The two aides declined comment.

Look, I have no idea what to make of this. What's clear, though, is that when Pendergast leveled his accusations against Swift and Crosby last November, there was more evidence to support his charges than was immediately apparent. The denials issued by Swift and Crosby may well be sincere, but the letter from Zaccaria (which I've read in its entirety), as well as the earlier Globe piece, suggest there are other facts that need to be considered as well.

At the very least, Pendergast may have gotten an unfair rap in some quarters - including from me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Dan. Safe to say that the influence peddling that passes for lobbying in this state does not lend itself to a transparent process. This had to happen. A public project whose time frame exceeds one full economic/real estate cycle, (typically 7-10 years) is a disaster waiting to happen. Either the state was competing with private sector construction for scarce labor (good times) or the Big Dig was the only game in town (bad times). In the former there is no incentive for cost control. In the latter unions do whatever they must to survive. This is not brain surgery. Why didn't Salvucci and all the "blue-sky" peddlers realize it?