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Chat with Globe reporter Raphael Lewis

On February 11, 2003, Globe reporter Raphael Lewis chatted with Boston.com readers about the Bechtel series.

Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
11:57AM
hi this is raphael lewis. i'm hear to answer your questions now.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
11:59AM
i'm also "here" to answer your questions. very tired...
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:00PM
it remains to be seen if mass. will see a refund from bechtel. the company once offered $50m, so i believe they agree there is some room for a refund.
madra
12:01PM
First off, kudos to you and your colleagues for sticking with a complicated story for a year and doing this public service. Second-- Massachusetts is likely never going to see any refund from Bechtel ever, are we?
bostondriver
12:01PM
The Big Dig is such a sprawling project... and this being Massachusetts... do you think a certain amount of "corruption" was probably inevitable? And how does this rate in the pantheon of corrupt deals for the state?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:02PM
i don't think we can say the big dig has been corrupt, but there has certainly been much waste. no one has been arrested for big time corruption, although the SEC is still looking into the 2000 overrun scandal. i don't know if it will enter the pantheon
wachusett
12:03PM
can/will Bechtel be compelled to return any of the 1 Billion $s to the tax payers of Massachusetts and the United States ?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:03PM
gov. romney appears serious about hiring an independent engineering firm to look into the overruns, and reimbursements. if they act quickly, bechtel could be compelled, or could offer a reimbursement like they did in the fall of 01
madra
12:05PM
But $50 million seems like an awfully paltry sum . . . .
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:07PM
no question, $50m is much less than the cost of even a small portion of the overruns. then again, $50m is a lot of money in the non-relative sense. i do believe a serious state investigation would unearth far more mistakes, but the cost of a legal battle must be weighed.
wachusett
12:09PM
$50 Million , $I Billion ; 5% for taxpayers 95% for Bechtel
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:09PM
actually, bechtel will pull in more than $2 billion by the time the Big Dig has completed. that's almost as much as the project was supposed to cost when it was first begun...
madra
12:10PM
did your investigation focus entirely on the Big Dig, or did you investigate if this kind of fast-and-loose stuff was typical of other Bechtel projects?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:11PM
we focused entirely on the big dig, but bechtel and parsons brinckerhoff are hardly strangers to controversy. bechtel is involved with problematic projects in Miami, Bolivia, and elsewhere. Parsons Brinck has also attracted criticism in other cities, most notably LA.
zengo
12:11PM
Would it be possible to get some sort of injunction regarding the statute of limitations on the possible refunds? It seems that most of these overruns were during the early stages of the project.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:12PM
secretary of state galvin has called on the legislature to rescind the statute of limitations for the big dig. we will have to see if the legislature has the appetite for such a move. not sure if it could be applied retroactively, however...
kenny
12:13PM
I hear a lot of lip service about refunds, but I would like to know what would actually have to happen to see money returned.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:13PM
for a refund to come in, bechtel would either have to offer money in negotiations or in arbitration on a case-by-case basis, or strike an out-of-court settlement after the state sued, or lose in court
knad111
12:14PM
Congratulations on a great job. I worked at the BD for 4 years and was constantly amazed at how easily B/PB got paid for fixing their mistakes. The lack of oversight was a result of both the Governor's office and the legislature dumping patronage appointments into the place. There were not enough State slots to begin with and they made no attempt to place qualified people there. And then there is Kerasiotes, who single handedly cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions. My only question is - it was out there all along - how come the Globe did not go after the story until now?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:15PM
a lot of people ask what took the Globe so long to do this series. we actually did a Spotlight Team series about Bechtel/Parsons' conflicted role, poor oversight, etc, in 1994. that said, this was a monumental effort that took a lot of time and money. it's not the type of project that can be entered into lightly. but of course, i'm glad we did!
wachusett
12:15PM
do/did Bechtel Executives have any relationship with the Executives of Enron & Tyco ??
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:16PM
bechtel has partnered with enron to build a power plant in India. GE is also a partner in that project. (bechtel was a minority partner, however)
mp
12:16PM
I 'd like to see a article bi partisan of nature that outlines and exposes all of the corruption this state has encountered. I understand your reporting the facts however the local dems "Finnerian" and the boys are just as guilty of "BAck room deals"
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:17PM
we found no evidence of any backroom deals, but that of course does not mean none occurred.
knad111
12:17PM
Bechtel was by far the dominant member of the team. PB was along for the ride, although they were more than happy to take advantage. You did a great job of capturing the political might of Bechtel. I think if they had been fired from the job, they could have killed off the Federal funding - they have that much influence.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:18PM
no question bechtel is an extremely powerful and influential -- and quite secretive -- company. parsons brinckerhoff is no slouch, however. our investigation found that they have been extremely active in giving campaign donations in Mass., much more so than Bechtel. we called the joint venture "Bechtel" in the series because they were the dominant partner, however.
mp
12:19PM
What is the long term effect this may cause to Bechtel's business? and are there other simular precedented cases against Bechtel?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:20PM
bechtel and PB are massive companies that do billions of dollars of work throughout the world annually, so i actually doubt their performance on the big dig will have a tremendous effect on their bottom lines. for every bad headline, there has also been a good one for their unquestionably good work on overcoming engineering challenges here, such as the Fort Point Channel, etc. still, the project is tough to find on the companies' web sites, you'll note.
bstongirl
12:20PM
I am very interested and intrigued by the recent series of articles. However, wasn't one of the issues surrounding the Mass Turnpike Authority how Jordan Levy (sp?) and maybe even the other guy Christy Mihos (sp?) uncovered this and tried to make Bechtel responsible. Why isn't this portrayed in the articles? Or is this not the case???
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:21PM
levy and mihos did get quite incensed with bechtel in the summer of 01 and demanded payback. they lost their jobs at the hands of acting gov. swift shortly thereafter. she said it had nothing to do with bechtel, but that's hard to believe. summarily firing bechtel, as levy and mihos were threatening, would indeed have had large ramifications for the turnpike and the project, including costs from delays while they found a new firm...
bostondriver
12:21PM
I've often heard the Big Dig referred to as "the world's largest public works project" or something to that effect. Is that claim objectively true? What's the basis? Cost? Complexity? Manpower expended?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:22PM
the big dig is certainly one of the largest project's in the nation's history. but i believe the building of the interstate highway system, the transcontinental railroad, and few others were bigger. it is probably the most complicated, from an engineering perspective.
barry
12:23PM
Fabulous series, I echo the comment that you guys performed a real public service. Have you heard from either the state or federal attorney general regarding this? Seems like there's a pretty good case here.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:24PM
state attorney general says he's going to sit this one out for a while. i believe there is a case that project officials and bechtel may have violated state laws, specifically mgl 30, that call for full and complete designs and specifications to be used when construction contracts are awarded. i spoke to him yesterday and he said he was looking into that.
whitey
12:24PM
If cost recovery was admittedly never the front burner issue for the Cost Recovery Chairman, then what was?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:25PM
cost recovery chairman mike lewis, who is now the project director (state's highest man on the job) says his number one priority was getting the project built. i'll leave you to evaluate the value of that statement.
jim
12:25PM
Was Modern Continental part of this investiagation? They always have cost overruns, yet seem to be the low bidder on every job? If you haven't investiagated them, you should! They have purchased over 25 million dollars in boats for their sinking boat company... I wonder where that came from
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:26PM
we did look somewhat into modern continental because they are the contractor with the most work on the big dig. their rate of change orders has to date been less than the project average, however. our focus was almost exclusively on the management of the project.
Vince
12:26PM
I only have a couple of minutes but I wanted to drop in to tell you "great job." Keep up the work. Let's see what the Gov. does with this info.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:26PM
thank you!
upsettaxpayer
12:26PM
How much has the big dig paid in police details??
Infuriated
12:27PM
In your talks and investigations did you ever encounter any type of anger/injustice that this has been allowed to continue endlessly-I'm ashamed to admit I elect government officials in Massachusetts-The whole thing disgusted me actually
mp
12:27PM
what good is this chat if you do not post any questions?
knad111
12:27PM
I remember a few years back, you were able to catch some of the patronage hacks who were supposedly doing community liaison work for the BD, but were really doing other jobs. Did you find more of this the current investigation?
Al
12:27PM
Of course the state government has dropped the ball, but why hasn't the federal government had better oversight (from the beginning) over the biggest civil project ever, you think they could spare a few full time auditors from the Highway Dept. since they funded a large portion of it?
tapper
12:27PM
Great work on this series. Did you find out any reason why Levy seemed to suddenly jump into Bectel's pocket last year? He used to be an outspoken critic, now he's just another puppet.
Gerry
12:27PM
Organized crime have any dealings with B/PB or the Big Dig in general?
rivercharles
12:27PM
Bechtel's "Friends in High Places" will probably absolve of paying for the waste and mismanagement that they practiced on the Big Dig, but don't you that based on the high level of Federal funding the region's economy has benefited in the long run?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:28PM
re: posting of questions, this is my first chat, so pardon my ineptitude. the questions are flying in. re: police details, i don't know the number of bucks spent on that off-hand, but i recall it being in the tens of millions of dollars. some are calling for those to be abolished.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:29PM
on federal oversight, the feds have been looking at the project's books for a long time, but they look at the minute level, rather than on the macro level, as we did in this investigation. i do believe there are some tough audits lurking out there. we are fighting to get them as we speak.
rambler
12:30PM
Was there thought at the start of the project to awarding the design and the construction management to separate firms, or were those two functions always going to be joined?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:31PM
there was talk at the outset of separating the design and construction management aspects of the big dig, but i believe bechtel drove a hard bargain for their services. they wanted to maximize profits by taking as much work as they could get.
MP
12:31PM
Do you have proof that Shannon Obrien is now a consultant for Bechtel?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:31PM
no proof whatsoever that shannon obrien is a bechtel consultant. if you have such proof yourself, please send it along. her husband, however, founded the lobbying firm that bechtel currently uses, but he got rid of his ownership stake when she ran for governor.
bchk
12:32PM
I don't think the focus of this whole mess should be entirely looked at as a result of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. This is a major scandal involving most of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' elected politicians as well as appointed officials; from Ted Kennedy right and down to the 'all talk, no action' former State Rep from Braintree. Talk about a terminal cancer. Everyone who is in charge is covering each others back. Do you think that with this 'well-oiled machine' in place that anything of significance will ever be recovered?
sailor
12:32PM
I have to agree with knad111, if this has been going on for 14 years why hasn't any of Boston's finast reporters addressed this issue to completion?????
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:33PM
i do believe that romney sees himself as the new sheriff in town, with none of the old baggage, but there's no question that getting money back will be extremely difficult, especially now that we're putting so much pressure on. bechtel and parsons brinckerhoff will likely fight tooth and nail
MP
12:34PM
Local Politician's had to have covered this up! If so can we PLEASE expose who knew what and at which stage? These elected officials that receive pay from our tax dollars owe us money? are they liable...BTW you guys are doing a great job ..please focus on the facts.
whitey
12:34PM
Was Read Sand and Gravel ever contracted for the Big Dig?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:35PM
the SEC is looking into the possibility of a coverup of big dig overruns in 99-00. that investigation is ongoing. we reported last year that the local office of the SEC has sent the case to HQ with a recommendation that it be pursued further. still working sources on that one. as for Read Sand and Gravel, I don't know.
bchk
12:35PM
And lord knows they have the money to spend on defending themselves!
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:36PM
yes, the company will make close to $200m in pure profit off the Big Dig alone. that buys plenty of top flight lawyers -- and lobbyists.
rambler
12:36PM
Were other heavyweights in the running against Bechtel at the time of the contract award, or did Bechtel get the job on the basis of a type of sole-source justification?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:37PM
yes, other heavyweights did contend for the big dig job, but the committee chose b/pb, they say, becuase the company had a long, good record on "slurry wall" tunnel construction, including the red line extension here in boston
knad111
12:37PM
Did you look into the employment history of Peter Zuk, former project manager? When he left he took a job with Level 3, which was at that time wholly owned by Kiewit, one of the major BD contractors?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:38PM
zuk does indeed work for a subsidiary of a major big dig contractor. it was reported at the time that he left. the revolving door swings quickly in boston.
Gerry
12:39PM
What were the most surprising results of your investigation?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:40PM
the most surprising results, i think, were the realization that b/pb sent out the designs quite unfinished. also, the fact that the cost recovery committee was not even meeting for two years, let alone recovering costs. officials told us it was poorly named, because it's real goal was not to recover costs, but to act as a deterrent. hmmm
MP
12:40PM
In "MITT" we trust
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:41PM
the gov. is the top officer in the state. he can direct the hirings and firings, the investigations, he can submit legislation. if anyone can react to the globe's findings, it's the governor, who in this case is indeed romney.
knad111
12:41PM
Did you look into the actual profit. Bechtel and PB were getting about 100% overhead on each employee + profit. However, the State paid all the expenses so the only real overhead seemed to be the 30-40% for benefits and maybe some conference attendance. Therefore much of what is claimed as overhead may really be profit. Did your investigation look into this?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:43PM
knad111, you definitely know your stuff. yes, b/pb i think made out quite well on so-called overhead payments, which were about 100 percent additional to wages. for bechtel's construction subsidiary, which has done about $14m of work on the big dig to date, they have also been paid 20 PERCENT profits, which is quite tidy indeed.
upsettaxpayer
12:43PM
what have the unions made for money off this big dig?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:43PM
don't know what the unions have made. i can say that they're quite happy that the big dig came to town, and was early on designated a union project. that's been a tremendous labor force boon.
barry
12:44PM
Have you heard from Bechtel about your report? Do they have a response?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:45PM
the san francisco chronicle wrote a business section story today in which bechtel "blasted" our stories as an "extreme misrepresentation" of the facts. they said they plan on issuing a lengthy response, which the company also did in response to a book called "Friends in High Places."
MP
12:45PM
I agree with upsettaxpayer! I drive by several state police doing nothing on detail. Where does that money come from. How much was budgeted daily ? and what are the actual figures. Can you if you have not already print the costing breakdown for the entire project....Budgeted vs. actual?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:46PM
the money for police details comes from a mix of state and federal money pumped into the big dig. some of that is toll money. mass. is fairly unique in its use of police details, i believe. every year, a few officers get killed on the work sites, too. it's an interesting topic of discussion, but i'm no expert on that.
rambler
12:46PM
What kind of cooperation have you received while preparing this story? How many times have you been screamed at? Have you been threatened?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:46PM
we've been screamed at since the stories came out, but never threatened. the big dig coughed up documents very reluctantly at first, but we hammered away, got our lawyers involved, and by the end, they were handing over thousands of pages at a time.
Pete
12:47PM
Other than the SEC, have any Federal agencies been conducting any review? Especially those disbursing funds, like FHWA or associated congressional committees? How do you think this will affect MA's future in terms of transportation project funding? Do you think an agressive inquiry can help restore our credibility?
MP
12:47PM
lets see what he can do, thanks for the direction. I think we should start a protest for him to start acting and doing what we elected him to do in the first place....knad111 care to chair this movement?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:48PM
the US dept of transportation inspector general now looks quite closely at the big dig's cost estimates. also, the auditing firm deloitte and touche conducts an audit for the governor every year. this year, they said the I-90 tunnel would open late, and sure enough, it did.
mktgmgr
12:48PM
While I'm glad you ran the series, most of the info was old news to Boston's design and construction professions. Most of them wouldn't submit proposals to do any of work - B/PB and their designer, Wallace-Floyd pretty much controlled the design aspects, and were just looking for firms outside the clique to "rubber stamp" the drawings. Talk about liablitity. Plus, it's well known in the business that Bechtel is completely untouchable - their tentacles reach to the highest levels of governments around the world - and they are the "Teflon" of businesses! Nothing ever sticks to them.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:50PM
i agree that many engineers have been walking the streets of boston for years knowing that big dig designs were woefully incomplete when construction began, but the public, lawmakers, etc, had no idea. i've been told that bechtel and parsons brinckerhoff are firms many engineers would like to work for, so perhaps they were loathe to criticize. as our stories showed, some critics were fired, although the company said it was for other reasons...
VinnySchnauzer
12:50PM
I was wondering about the all the MA political hacks who received lobbying funds from Bechtel. Do you think there is the possibility that they may have committed a crime or might be investigated?
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:50PM
unless someone can unearth evidence that lawmakers did favors in return for contributions, i don't think an investigation could do much. it's really business as usual... sadly.
bchk
12:51PM
Should this Big Dig scandal ramp-up to a major investigation, could you and associates investigative documentation and sources of information be used as evidence? It would seem that you have a more comprehensive understanding of what has happened and what is happening than all of those who were suppose to be charge do.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:52PM
i think someone with subpoena power could get a lot more dirt and info than the Globe ever could. we got as far as the public can, i think, but you need the power of the law to get the great stuff. we relied mostly on insiders and critics, which is no way to conduct a real legal investigation. and still, we found good stuff.
MP
12:52PM
how concerned or involved is the Boston Globe Management when you expose such ar artical that may have a adverse political reaction exposing local POLS?
MP
12:52PM
Mass is unique because they try to confuse the public? Great business plan....Enron tried it! As for the Officer killed in action, my heart goes out to them its a job I would not want to participate in. However the fat needs to be cut!
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:53PM
i don't know how concerned Globe management is with the reaction of local pols, but i'd say they're not thinking about it too much. we as a newspaper have to go after the truth regardless of who gets offended, or how powerful they are.
MP
12:53PM
Raphael. The evidence is out there,we need facts!
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:54PM
not sure what evidence you refer to, but i devour facts for breakfast, so the more the merrier.
Raphael Lewis (Moderator)
12:55PM
THANK YOU EVERYONE FOR YOUR QUESTIONS!!! I'm signing off. wrists are too tired.


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