Friday, November 24th, 2006
Allegation of falsified reports not proven
Mercer County engineer accused of issuing false info to get bridges replaced
By Timothy Cox
A former Mercer County employee claims that millions of dollars in federal grants to replace bridges on rural roads were based on false information intentionally given to the government.
The Federal Highway Administration's Office of Inspector General investigated the issue, recently determining the accusations could not be substantiated.
Tim Hager of Celina, who spent a decade as the county's lone bridge inspector, accuses county Engineer Jim Wiechart of forcing him to provide bogus information to federal authorities regarding the integrity of several bridges. Hager claims that eight of the nine bridges that were replaced this year earned federal grant assistance based on falsified inspection reports.
Hager is considering legal action against the county to get his job back. County commissioners and Wiechart met recently in executive session to discuss "the termination of an employee and pending litigation." County officials would not confirm their discussion centered on Hager.
The county has reaped more than $10 million in federal grants for bridges since 1999, and much of that money is based on phony inspection reports, Hager said. Some of the projects legitimately met federal criteria for replacement, but the most recent inspection reports were doctored to some degree, Hager claims.
Hager said he believes Wiechart pushed the issue because he wanted to take advantage of federal funding before the program is scaled back next year. Wiechart never directly asked Hager to lie, but ordered him to produce bridge inspection reports that would meet the grant criteria, Hager said.
"He told me I needed to be more critical and to do whatever I needed to do to get the sufficiency rating low enough," Hager said.
Wiechart denied any wrongdoing and said the bridge inspection reports are accurate. He would not discuss Hager's past performance or the terms of his dismissal.
"I have heard his allegation, and it is not true," Wiechart said, declining to comment further on the matter.
Wiechart said he and some staff members were interviewed by the Inspector General's office and he now considers the matter closed. As for the future of the funding source, Wiechart said it remains intact. He added the county won't have as many projects funded through the program in the future because fewer of the county's bridges qualify for funding because so many have been replaced in recent years.
Wiechart also said as the county's only professional engineer, he is the only one truly qualified to inspect bridges. Hager's work was done under Wiechart's oversight, he said.
Hager several months ago complained directly to Mercer County Commissioners, who told him they had no control over Wiechart's office. When questioned by The Daily Standard, commissioners also deferred comment to Wiechart.
"As the county's top elected officials, I thought they should know what is going on," Wiechart said.
Some of Hager's former coworkers call him a disgruntled employee seeking reprisal against the man who fired him. Hager was arrested in March for driving under the influence and was terminated from his position less than a month later.
Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) officials, who administer the federal funding program locally, occasionally ask for clarification on some projects.
"It surprises me there weren't more red flags," Hager said.
For example, a bridge on Meyer Road near the intersection of Schunk Road just southwest of Celina, was in decent shape and likely would have lasted for decades with proper maintenance, Hager said. It was replaced during the past summer.
"It's just narrow. Structurally, it's a good bridge," Hager said.
The bridge was replaced earlier this year based on a phony inspection report, Hager said. Copies of county bridge inspection reports obtained by The Daily Standard appear to lend Hager's claims some merit.
In a report on the Meyer Road bridge Hager did in September 2000, he rated the bridge a 6 on a 0-9 scale, with a 9 representing a newly built bridge and a zero representing a collapsed bridge. Less than a year later, in May 2001, Hager inspected the bridge again, this time rating it as a 3. Hager said he scored the bridge so low under pressure from Wiechart.
The ODOT bridge inspection manual labels a rating of 3 as "serious condition." A rating of 6 is "satisfactory condition."
In a recent interview, Hager explained that it would be almost impossible for a bridge to deteriorate so quickly in less than a year. Inspection ratings rarely change more than a point in a year's time, he said. A three-point swing in the rating for a bridge could only be from a serious error made in the inspection or if the bridge was damaged in an accident, Hager said.
Hager also produced copies of bridge inspection reports that showed numbers scratched out and calculations done in the margins of the paper. Those are evidence of his trying to "fudge" the numbers as Wiechart wanted, Hager said.
After losing his job, Hager said he wanted to expose the lies he said are Wiechart's fault. After hitting several dead ends, Hager finally convinced the U.S. Inspector General's office to listen to his story. Two investigators from the department's regional office interviewed Hager in his home.
Investigators spoke to Wiechart and members of his staff but it remains unclear how much time was spent on the inquiry and who was interviewed.
Hager's position has not been filled, and Wiechart remains the only one qualified to inspect the county's bridges, Wiechart said.
A public relations spokesman for the Inspector General's office in Washington, D.C., said the office generally does not confirm investigations or discuss inquiries until there are findings.
David Barnes, a spokesman for the Inspector General's office, would neither confirm nor deny the investigation.
By statute, the Inspector General conducts investigations into whether federal laws and regulations were followed and must report suspected civil and criminal violations to the Attorney General. In fiscal year 2006, office of Inspector General investigations resulted in 169 indictments, 177 convictions and nearly $49 million in fines, restitutions and recoveries.
A copy of a report obtained by The Daily Standard shows the matter is closed with no criminal or civil findings against Wiechart. Hager also will not face any penalties for his role in the alleged scheme. Investigators had warned Hager that he could face civil or criminal charges for his role, even though he was the whistle-blower.
"Based on a review of your complaint, we directed our Chicago regional office to conduct an inquiry into your allegation. Our review of the documents provided determined that your allegation could not be substantiated," wrote Pamela Steele-Nelson, chief of the department's complaint center. "Our files regarding this matter are now closed. Thank you for providing us the opportunity to look into this matter."
Hager remains unsatisfied with the outcome.
"It was pure lies," Hager said. "The way I look at it, we stole money from another community that deserved it."
A Federal Highway Administration staffer, speaking on condition on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, shed some light on how the investigation might have unfolded.
Bridge inspection, by its nature, is a subjective science, the official said. Because of that, different inspectors could conceivably come up with vastly different ratings for the same bridge, he said. Additionally, investigators are primarily looking for criminal activity.
"In this case, the money was for bridges. What did it get spent on? Bridges. If the money went for its intended purpose, investigators might have been satisfied with that," the official said.
Inspection of bridges in Ohio is the responsibility of county engineers' offices throughout the state and are guided by Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) guidelines.
Mercer County has 443 bridges and 650 culverts, which are shorter spans over small ditches and waterways. Mercer County ranks seventh among 88 counties in the state for number of bridges and 22nd in number of miles of roads maintained by the county engineer.
According to ODOT regulations, bridge inspectors must "be a registered engineer who has the expertise in the field of bridge design, construction and maintenance, or a technician who has general knowledge of structural behavior, experience with bridges, attended a comprehensive bridge inspector's training course and who works under the direct supervision of a professional engineer qualified to perform inspections."
Bridges by Ohio law must be inspected at least once annually. Inspectors look at the deck, which is the bridge's road surface, the superstructure and the substructure in deciding a bridge's "sufficiency rating." Bridges are rated on a 0-9 point scale, with a 9 representing a newly built bridge and a zero representing a collapsed bridge.
Bridge inspectors are required to carry an inventory of tools and equipment with them when they perform inspections. The list includes a tape measure, calipers, chipping hammer, scraper, sounding rod, binoculars, camera, safety line, magnifying glass, mirror, flashlight, ladder, marking tolls, safety harness and hard hat.
Inspectors are required to fully inspect a bridge, even the portion under the water's surface. This could involve additional equipment such as scaffolding or even the use of trained divers to access difficult to reach areas.
"The inspector must approach each task sincerely and with proper motivation since his judgment and thoroughness is relied upon to guarantee public safety and to protect public investment with respect to bridges," the ODOT manual says.
- Timothy Cox