Friday, August 04, 2006

Demand Action on Big Dig Review Board

About two weeks ago, I posted about Senator Marian Walsh's (D-West Roxbury) call for public hearings on the CA/Tastrophe. I believe so strongly that an independent accounting of all the problems with the Big Dig is so long overdue that I contacted her office for more information. The Senator is calling for the creation of what she's calling the "Emergency Investigative Review Board" to oversee the entire Central Artery/Tunnel Project, modeled after the Ward Commission. Her office sent me a fact sheet with more information that I'd like to share with both of my readers.

Before that, though, I'd like to give my take on why this board is necessary, even though the Big Dig has been subject to countless audits and the Attorney General and Governor are both conducting their own ongoing investigation. The first and most important difference, at least with the criminal investigation, is that this will be conducted in public. If the Attorney General's office finds no one to charge, or decides that they can't make anything stick, we may never get the whole story. Ideally, the proceedings of the Review Board will not only be public, but videotaped and freely available on the Internet. In addition, the Governor's task force contains people hand-picked by Romney from his administration. Will they have the courage to point fingers at their colleagues if necessary? Even if they could promise neutrality, they will not have subpoena power and their main focus seems to be on streamlining and 'reforming' the Turnpike Authority.

As far as previous audits are concerned, I'm hardly a Big Dig historian, but it seems to me that the whole program was never under a stem-to-stern review. There were, most recently, investigations into the leaks and who would pay for repairs. There have also been earlier inquiries to specific cost overruns, but I don't think anyone has woven all these discrete scandals into one overarching narrative, allowing us to identify the villains and try to institute mechanisms to avoid these sorts of problems in future public works projects.

Here's the information I got from Senator Walsh's office regarding the Review Board.

  1. Creates a seven member board to investigate unsafe and corrupt practices by contractors and government officials in regard to the construction of the Central Artery Project.
  2. Board will be chaired by a retired justice of the SJC, Superior or Appeals Court and include a lay person, a Certified Public Accountant or other person with appropriate financial expertise, a registered professional engineer or person with requisite engineering expertise, an architect or similarly qualified individual, a former prosecutor or investigator and a person with significant high level experience in managing large scale public construction projects. The retired justice will chair the Board.
  3. Persons directly or indirectly associated with the Central Artery Project and immediate family members will not be eligible to serve on or be employed by the Board.
  4. Board members will not be compensated, but will be reimbursed for expenses.
  5. The Board may request and can compel the cooperation of other state officers and entities.
  6. The Board will have subpoena power.
  7. Persons behaving in a disorderly or contemptuous manner before the Board shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
  8. The Board may apply to the Supreme Judicial Court for an order granting immunity to witnesses that refuse to testify or produce evidence on the basis of his or her privilege against self incrimination. Whoever falsely or misleadingly testifies before the Board may be found guilty of perjury and subjected to the penalties associated with that crime.
  9. Hearings of the Board shall be public unless a majority of the Board votes otherwise.
  10. The Board shall submit evidence to appropriate authorities where warranted.
  11. All other government entities shall make reports to the Board regarding their investigations and provide all relevant records to the Board.
  12. The Board shall file an interim report on or before December 18th 2006 and a final report and recommendations on or before July 18th 2007. The report will include a review of all instances of unsafe or corrupt practices regarding the planning, design, construction, inspection and monitoring of the Central Artery Project.
  13. The Board's investigation will cease upon the filing of its final report and all records will be forwarded to the Secretary of the Commonwealth. In order to preserve the integrity of the Board's evidence and because documents from private parties will not be public records within the meaning of M.G.L. Chapter 4 Section 7 they will not be available to the public without a court order. Cessation of the Boards investigation will not effect ongoing investigations or actions pursuant to evidence or information generated by the Board.
  14. This legislation will not preclude an individual from cooperating with any investigation into matters covered by the provisions of this Act.
  15. Coercion, harassment or discrimination against any person or entity for cooperation with this investigation will be punishable by a fine of not more than five-hundred thousand dollars or imprisonment for not more than two years or both, and any person or entity that takes such action may be liable to the wronged employee or entity for treble damages, costs and attorney's fees.
It seems to me that there is no reason to oppose the creation of this board. I would encourage everyone to contact their legislators to make this investigation happen. How can we ever ask Massachusetts to support a public works project again if we can't reasonably claim that the mistakes of the Big Dig are understood and won't be repeated?