State Auditor Takes a Tough Look at Caltrans

By John Howard
Special from Capitol Weekly

One phone call started it all.

It was an anonymous tipster who alerted the state's top auditor to faked overtime pay at Caltrans, but as the four-year investigation continued it turned up evidence of fudged data and safety testing violations at structures across the state.

State Auditor Elaine Howle's 31-page report comes on the heels of numerous media reports questioning Caltrans' safety testing procedures and data at the multibillion-dollar Bay Bridge construction project. Those include a recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle that some 10 percent of the huge bolts that help hold the new span together were discovered to be broken.

But while the $6.4 billion Bay Bridge project has received the most media attention, Howle's report includes incidents from across the state. And even though Howle's study focuses on a tiny section of the huge agency -- Caltrans has about 20,000 workers -- the subjects it touches resonate with a safety-conscious public.

The auditor concluded "that a supervisor neglected his duty to supervise two transportation engineering technicians, which facilitated the technicians being paid for work they did not perform, at an estimated cost of $13,788 in overpayments. One of the technicians, as determined by Caltrans and federal agencies, falsified concrete pile testing data for at least three transportation projects. A subsequent review by Caltrans identified eight additional incidents of data falsification. The supervisor also misappropriated Caltrans property with the assistance from other technicians and other subordinate employees," Howle wrote.

Howle said the conduct by a handful of employees was "an inexcusable neglect of duty."

For its part, Caltrans acknowledged the issues raised by Howle and said the agency already reported the problems to lawmakers.

"These findings are very much in keeping with the hundreds of pages of reports Caltrans delivered to the Legislature in February. The department and the auditor found the same problems, and, essentially, identified the same solutions, most of which have already been adopted,” said Caltrans spokesman Will Shuck.

The auditor noted that falsified data testing was discovered at a bridge at Lake Hodges north of San Diego, Riverside's La Sierra Avenue Bridge, a retaining wall in Los Angeles, the Benicia Bridge and an overhead structure on Interstate 580 in Oakland.  The complete report is available here.

All of the structures have been rested and determined to be safe, Caltrans reported.

Howle's office was not alone in looking at Caltrans: Federal Department of Transportation officials and officials from the Federal Highway Department both launched related investigations, after Howle asked Caltrans to help out in the auditor's probe. Federal agencies get involved in Caltrans operations because the state's huge transportation agency uses federal dollars.

The state auditor also was not pleased with the way Caltrans responded to her office's requests for information.

The tip from the whistleblower came in early in 2009, but "Caltrans did not provide us with the results of its review of the technicians' timesheets until September 2009, despite our repeated requests for a quicker response. However, when we received the results of the review and examined Caltrans’ methodology for conducting the review, we found the review to be inadequate, as Caltrans did not explain how the technicians could have worked so much overtime on days when they were not assigned to perform testing in the field."

Ultimately, Howle found some $13,788 in overtime payments for 267 hours that weren't really worked. In one case, a supervisor responsible for tracking the overtime ordered employees to take steel from the Caltrans yard and transport it to his own ranch in Susanville.

On the data testing, even when it was apparent the data had been tampered with, there was no immediate move to correct the problem. The false testing occurred between 2004 and 2009.

 "Despite identifying these additional data falsifications, Caltrans did not at that time take any action to determine whether the structures affected were indeed sound," she wrote. 

Much of the material covered in Howle's audit had been reported by the Sacramento Bee over the past year and half. The Bee also noted that a team of Caltrans experts had found that "four state engineers signed test reports that misrepresented or ignored data or other 'consequential' information on freeway structure, including the Benicia-Martinez bridge."

The newspaper also noted that a separate internal review by Caltrans' Division of Audits and Investigations has never been made public. AB 486 by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, would take the division out of Caltrans and shift it to the California Transportation Commission, the powerful state panel that sets transportation policy and decides the five-year construction formula. 

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