Agency fires tech, says San Francisco bridge safe

AP News
Posted: Nov 14, 2011 10:37 PM
Agency fires tech, says San Francisco bridge safe

The California Department of Transportation moved swiftly Monday to try to reassure the public that the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and other highway projects around the state are safe, announcing it had fired a technician responsible for seismic testing on the bridge after an investigation found he had falsified safety tests on other projects.

The department announced it had begun the process to fire Duane Wiles and his supervisor, Brian Liebich, earlier this month. That revelation came after The Sacramento Bee reported over the weekend ( that Wiles was accused of falsifying safety tests on several construction projects.

"There has been absolutely no evidence of any kind of any falsification of any data involving the Bay Bridge," Tony Anziano, the agency's toll bridge program manager, said during a conference call with reporters Monday.

Caltrans said it had reviewed all of Wiles' work dating to 2004 and found he falsified data on three projects: a Los Angeles underpass on Interstate 405; a bridge in San Bernardino; and an overhead freeway sign in Oakland.

"We've deemed all those facilities safe," Caltrans Acting Director Malcolm Dougherty said.

Dougherty denied that the timing of the employees' firing was related to the Bee's report, saying state and federal investigations into Wiles' work were completed only recently. The employees were notified Nov. 8 that they would be fired in 10 days, he said.

But two state lawmakers said they still have many questions about the safety testing and why the employee stayed on the job for years after questions were raised about Wiles' work.

"Anyone who gets behind the wheel should take this very seriously," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chairwoman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. "California motorists should never have to wonder if their government has done everything possible to keep them safe."

Caltrans officials first learned of possible falsified tests in September 2008, when another department employee spotted inconsistent figures while evaluating Wiles' data for a report, the newspaper reported. Another employee found other suspicious figures and urged his superiors to do a thorough investigation.

A supervisor issued a written reprimand to Wiles in April 2009, accusing him of a "critical and inexcusable breech of ethics," the Bee reported.

He later was reprimanded and reassigned to another position involving soil testing, "and he certainly was on a short leash," Dougherty said. Dougherty said the department began its first investigation within weeks of learning about possible problems.

A man who answered the phone at a listing for a Duane Wiles in Sacramento hung up Monday after the caller identified herself as an Associated Press reporter. A message left at that number during a subsequent call was not immediately returned.

The Bee reported that other department officials expressed concern that Liebich did not take seriously enough allegations that Wiles had falsified reports, but Dougherty said Liebich was fired for other activity reported by the Bee. The newspaper reported that Liebich directed technicians on state time and using state equipment to build, transport and install a steel gate and to build an A-frame structure on his property near Susanville.

Telephone messages left at two listings for Brian Liebich _ in Gold River, near Sacramento, and in the eastern San Francisco Bay area city of Martinez _ were not immediately returned.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said he planned to hold a hearing of the committee before the end of the year to examine whether the state conducted adequate structural testing on the Bay Bridge and other bridges throughout the state. DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said he was extremely frustrated to hear of the questionable testing.

"It's good knowing that there are redundancies and there have been other tests, but it's the Legislature's responsibility to find out what went wrong," DeSaulnier told the AP on Monday.

The committee's vice chairman, Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, said the state needs to act much more quickly than Caltrans did when a whistleblower alleges wrongdoing.

Caltrans said Wiles performed tests of pilings on the Bay Bridge span in 2006 and 2007, before officials learned he might have falsified other reports.

Wiles tested the structural integrity of 13 buried concrete and steel pilings that hold up the tower for the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2013.

In six of the cases, the Bee reported, Wiles' test results showed no significant problems, even though his colleagues found numerous sections of questionable concrete density that needed more scrutiny or repair. Caltrans officials said Wiles' work was among many tests the agency conducted. They said they are confident the $6.3 billion span is safe.

Wiles also did not follow a Caltrans requirement to check that his testing gauge was working properly to ensure its accuracy before testing portions of the bridge's tower foundation. Dougherty said subsequent tests have shown the equipment was working.

One of the tests that officials say Wiles falsified involved a retaining wall piling for an underpass below the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. That falsification was caught during construction, and contractors opted to replace the piling, Dougherty said. The others, in Oakland and San Bernardino, revealed no safety issues, he said.

During the same period, from 2006 to 2008, Wiles was paid nearly $39,000 for 925 hours of overtime he claimed, the Bee reported. A database of state employee salaries on the newspaper's website shows he was paid $82,105 in 2008, with a base pay of $64,140; $59,251 in 2009; and $57,318 in 2010.

The eastern span of the Bay Bridge partially collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, leading to plans to replace it. Its total cost has escalated from $1.4 billion to $6.3 billion.

Caltrans has said the new span must be built to withstand the strongest anticipated earthquake.


Associated Press writer Judy Lin contributed to this report.