BRATTLEBORO — Even though there is a criminal investigation being conducted into the construction of 15 bridges in southern Vermont, the state's chief highway engineer said there is no danger to the people who travel across those bridges every day.
"I can, with all integrity, say the traveling public is not at risk right now," Wayne Symonds, chief engineer for the Agency of Transportation's Highway Division, told the Reformer.
"We learned about the issues on the Bristol bridge from a whistleblower," Symonds said.
"[T]he settlement resolves allegations that [J.A. McDonald] employees intentionally altered critical bridge components such that the bridge no longer conformed to specified safety standards, and that JAM employees took affirmative steps to conceal such alterations from the Vermont Agency of Transportation," states the press release. "As a result of the alleged cover-up, VTrans unwittingly paid JAM for deficient bridge work and in turn presented a number of false claims to the Federal Highway Administration for the reimbursement of the federal share of amounts paid to JAM."
Following the investigation, notes the press release, J.A. McDonald replaced the "allegedly-deficient bridge components" at its own cost and under the supervision of VTrans inspectors. "JAM has also terminated its employment of two employees who allegedly directed the foregoing scheme," notes the press release.
According to the second report, employees were "going around to various connecting bolts and attempting to bend them into alignment with a template anchor bolt ...." The allegation stated the bolts were then cut "in a manner similar to the Bristol project" after someone, name redacted, "directed to hammer or cut the bolt heads."
That second report, which was received in June 2018, spurred the Agency of Transportation to review all the bridges in Vermont that J.A. McDonald built or worked on between 2002 and 2019.
"The decision to inspect all 48 bridges was made out of an abundance of caution after the second report," said Symonds.
After filing an open records request, the Reformer received a number of documents, some of them redacted because of an ongoing criminal investigation and others refused on the grounds of attorney/client privilege. One of the documents was a list of all 48 bridges.
That list included another 11 bridges in southern Vermont: The Route 7 "Ramp A" and "Ramp G" over Route 279 and the Route 7 bridge over Route 279 in Bennington; the Citizens Bridge in Brattleboro, which replaced the Creamery Covered Bridge in 2010; two railroad bridges, the one at Route 9 just before the Connecticut River and a smaller bridge south of that bridge behind the fast food restaurants on Putney Road in Brattleboro; the Route 5 bridge in Putney where it crosses over Interstate 91 just before the Westminster town line; and four bridges are located on Route 9 in Searsburg, all four in a small stretch of road in the vicinity of where Bond Brook meets the Deerfield River.
The public was first alerted to the problem on the four bridges when VTrans issued a press release in May stating, "Immediately following the whistleblower complaints, [VTrans] bridge engineers evaluated the bridges and determined there were no immediate public safety concerns." The engineers used ground-penetrating radar and ultrasonic tests, and conducted visual examinations, stated the press release.
Symonds said VTrans is inspecting and analyzing data as quickly as possible.
"We are working really hard. In the near future, we hope to release some of the test reports," he said. "As soon as I get the clearance to release them, I will more than happy to share those."
The Bennington bridge work was completed in June 2011 at a cost of nearly $40 million and the Guilford bridge work was done in November 2011 at a cost of a little more than $7 million. The funds primarily came from the federal government.
Symonds said in the case of the Bristol project, a J.A. McDonald employee cut bolts that anchor the bridge to its abutments and pier.
"Those cut anchor bolts reduced the capacity of the bridge and that was unacceptable," said Symonds.
"It wasn't a day-to-day safety issue. In this case, the anchor bolts are for extreme events like earthquakes or floods," said Symonds. "It wasn't ideal, but it wasn't something for which we had to immediately reduce traffic capacity."
On Aug. 30, Eric Boyden, the president of J.A. McDonald, sent a statement to Vermont Business Magazine, stating the company was under different ownership when the bridges were constructed, noting he has cooperated fully in VTrans's investigation.
"J.A. McDonald is a small Vermont company with a long history of quality construction work for the State of Vermont and other clients," wrote Boyden. "We have pledged transparency and our assistance to the State, and will work with [VTrans] to address any issues discovered."
Boyden has not responded to requests for comment from the Reformer.
According to the redacted documents, J.A. McDonald violated the specification requirements for the contracts that dictated "anchor bolts to be dropped through reinforced concrete. ... It is possible to either pour the concrete and attempt to drill through the concrete without hitting rebar or to use hollow sleeves at the time of pouring the concrete through which the bolts can later pass [redacted] workers were hitting rebar when drilling through the concrete preventing inserting the bolt through the concrete as needed due to rebar being in the way [redacted] cut through the rebar [redacted] ...."
AOT also received information in 2016 that it was "well known in JA McDonald for shorting people their wages ... and for cutting corners, such as cutting repair and bolt heads. [Redacted] stated he did not know why [redacted] had the practice of cutting rebar as the use of sleeves was easy but otherwise acknowledged [redacted] regularly cut rebar on other projects. Another employee [redacted] also stated to [redacted] he also knew about [redacted] habit of cutting rebar."
Though VTrans' initial investigation has determined the bridges are still safe, Symonds said any bridges found to be built out of conformance with requirements will have reduced lifespans.
"We design our bridges with a 100-year lifespan," said Symonds. "My experience as a bridge engineer leads me to conclude that the lifespan of these bridges might be reduced by as much as 25 years."
And according to other documents received by the Reformer, J.A. McDonald failed to receive its annual prequalification renewal in May, due to the problems alleged by the whistleblower and the resulting investigation. According to VTrans regulations, annual prequalification "is the initial and annual process by which an entity obtains general permission to submit bids for Agency contracts." A committee reviews the application and sets "certain limitations (called ratings and classifications) for the dollar amounts, number of contracts, and the type of work on which a contractor is allowed to bid and be awarded contracts."
J.A. McDonald appealed the finding, but that appeal was denied.
"Based upon the forgoing, and until further notice, effective immediately AOT finds that J.A. McDonald, Inc. is not a responsible contractor and therefore is ineligible to receive any new work, as a contractor or a subcontractor, on any AOT projects, or on work for other any entities utilizing AOT grant funds," wrote Joe Flynn, the secretary of VTrans, in a letter to Boyden.
The Reformer began requesting information on the work performed by J.A. McDonald on Sept. 10. The initial request was met with a pro forma response from AOT's records manager stating the records request had been received, and that it could take up to 10 days to collect the requested documents and to consult with legal counsel and the Attorney General's Office. Attached to the response was a lengthy fee schedule outlining the potential costs.
The Reformer sent a revised request on Sept. 17, focusing on the whistleblower's complaint and "any and all documents that outline and clearly define any 'inferior or inadequate quality of work performed or materials provided ...' by J.A. McDonald in the construction of four bridges in southern Vermont 'and/or violations of terms of a contract' committed by J.A. McDonald in the construction of the four bridges ...."
As a result of the revised request, the Reformer received another notice stating VTrans had another 10 days to respond after consulting with legal counsel and the AG's office.
On Oct. 1, three days after the agreement was reached with the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Reformer received the redacted documents. As of Wednesday, the Reformer has not received a bill for the request.
"I trust that VTrans keeps in mind that public safety is the primary concern when doing the people's business," wrote state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, Windham 4 District, in an email to the Reformer. "However, when media requests for information regarding why a bridge contractor's work was in question are not fully and expeditiously met the public needs to know why. While the possibility of litigation needs to be a consideration, Vermonters need to have every assurance that our transportation infrastructure is safe. Free and unfettered journalism is one way that flow of information can best get to Vermonters."
Jared K. Carter, a First Amendment expert who teaches at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, told the Reformer that VTrans' reticence to share information with the public might not violate the letter of the Vermont Open Records Law, but it surely violates the spirit of the law.
"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," he said. "If the goal is open government, in the spirit of the law you would think they would turn over all the information."
While Carter doesn't believe there is any nefarious intent in only releasing redacted documents and withholding others, he said when government isn't transparent about an issue as fundamental as bridge safety, it only breeds distrust.
"This sort of culture runs counter to what the Legislature intended with the Open Records Law," said Carter. "These are 50 bridges that people drive across with their families every day. The public interest in knowing what is going on is great."
Symonds apologized for the redacted documents, stating that the release of more information to the public could jeopardize the ongoing investigation.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.