Tuesday, July 25, 2006

More On the Ward Commission

The Globe's Sunday Ideas section had three pieces related to the Big Dig and its political history that I found very interesting. A lot of the discussion lately has been about bolts and epoxy and duct tape, but I'm not a structural engineer, so I feel like I can't add anything to that. I've been accused of being a software engineer, and in fact the current situation reminds me of the old joke: When an engineer builds a bridge, he specs everything out first, makes sure the design is robust and when the bridge is built, it's ready for cars to cross it. If a software developer built a bridge, he'd immediately start building, and when he thought it was done he'd send a few test cars across. If it failed, he'd fix only where it failed and try again. Once enough test cars crossed, he'd ship it (patches, of course, forthcoming). Hmm, maybe the CA/Tastrophe was done by software types after all....

But back to the Globe. The first piece, by Robert Keough of MassINC, details the revolving door at the head of the Big Dig since its inception. I have a hard time taking any column that describes former MassPike head Jim Kerasiotes as "incorruptible" considering that he hid $1.4 billion of Big Dig cost overruns and had to settle with the SEC to avoid prosecution, but that's a minor quibble. Keough doesn't exactly make the case that no one was held accountable because of the constant turnover in leadership and responsibility, but it certainly can be argued that a lack of continuity at the top did not help matters any.

The other two pieces are on the Ward Commission, which investigated corruption in Massachusetts construction projects over twenty five years ago. Dave Denison asks if the lessons of the Ward Commission can be applied today and examines what made the commission different:

The Ward Commission was given real power-to subpoena records, to grant immunity to witnesses, to hold public and private hearings, and to refer cases for prosecution. Telling the straight story about how things went wrong was only the beginning. "The main point was to get laws changed," says [Nick] Littlefield, [former executive council to the Ward Commission].
What would be the main point of a commission should one be formed today? Personally, while I would like the laws changed to reflect problems that the commission might uncover, what I feel I want most is for someone to be held accountable, and to have the entire process exposed to some sunshine. I basically want what Keough described in his article as "the political history of the Big Dig" to be written. I want to know how "this" happened -- not just the death of Melena Del Valle, but the entire set of problems we've known about and the ones that such a commission will uncover -- so we can know what happened, who is responsible and how to prevent it.

The last column is an opinion piece by Mark Wolf, now a judge, but who worked with then US Attorney Bill Weld in some of the prosecution that followed the Ward Commission's findings. Wolf asks if there's something in our political culture that has caused our history of corruption in construction projects. He asks:
How could a project launched by Dukakis [who appointed the Ward Commission,] and built substantially during Weld's tenure as governor have become so costly and catastrophic? What is there in our political culture concerning public construction that seems more powerful than even the most well-meaning leadership? And in view of the culture of corruption so vividly demonstrated by the Ward Commission in 1980, was enough done to discover, punish, and deter possible abuse while the Big Dig was being built?
Wolf makes a similar call for a commission that has a wider scope than a safety audit that would necessarily focus on the engineering issues. He describes three things any any commission would need: power to investigate possible corruption, capable people at the helm, and "all the resources" it would need to make these discoveries.

We can apply enough political pressure to get a commission created, and maybe even make sure it is funded and has the power it needs. The question remains, is there anyone left in Massachusetts who is both politically savvy enough to take this on and politically independent enough to make sure no responsible party is spared?