THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

Amorello — the fall guy

Amorello made his choices and will have to live with them. But does any public official involved in the Big Dig feel any guilt about making him the scapegoat? Amorello made his choices and will have to live with them. But does any public official involved in the Big Dig feel any guilt about making him the scapegoat? (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / August 11, 2010

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THERE WAS always plenty of blame to spread around. But when a woman died in a Big Dig tunnel collapse, Matthew J. Amorello got most of it.

It’s the Massachusetts way.

Find a piñata and hit it as long and hard as possible. The distraction allows everyone else to duck accountability.

When Amorello became chairman of the Turnpike Authority in 2002, the Big Dig was already billions of dollars over budget and years past the original completion date. Work on it had started four governors ago. There were documented safety concerns and warnings about lax oversight.

Yes, the former state senator from Grafton clung too long to a job he held simply because of his friendship with acting Governor Jane Swift. He should have given it up when Mitt Romney became governor. He was arrogant and too taken with self-reverential ceremonies that celebrated a flawed project. He was also greedy. On the way out, he changed state policy to allow himself and top aides to cash in more unused sick days than were previously allowed.

Amorello is responsible for management mistakes made on his watch. But he didn’t deserve to be turned into a solo scapegoat just because it suited everyone’s political agenda — especially Romney’s. After shoving aside Swift to run for governor in 2002, Romney did what victors always do — he pushed aside anyone associated with the prior regime. It helped him establish credentials as the reform candidate. It also helped him replace one wing of the tiny but fractious Massachusetts Republican party with another wing — his own.

Amorello wouldn’t leave, and for awhile his Democratic friends in the Legislature protected him. That ended when chunks of concrete killed Milena Del Valle. As Amorello was paying condolences to Del Valle’s family, Romney was demanding his ouster. Soon afterwards, legislative leaders cut Amorello loose. The man dubbed “Fat Matt’’ by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr was finally gone.

From there, his life spiraled downward. He lost his wife, his house, his job prospects, and this week, whatever was left of his reputation and dignity.

The chairman who once oversaw the largest public works projects in America faces a drunk driving charge, graphically illustrated by shocking police booking photos. He appears to be unconscious as his head is held upright by two gloved hands. The piñata finally broke.

Amorello made his choices and will have to live with them. But I wonder if any in the long line of public officials who are happy to bask in the Big Dig’s spectacular success, feel the slightest guilt over letting him be the fall guy for its spectacular failure.

The project began under Governor Michael S. Dukakis, a Democrat, whose administration lowballed the price tag and underestimated the time needed to complete it. Four Republican governors — William F. Weld, Paul Cellucci, Swift, and Romney — watched as costs inched higher and the project duration turned into decades.

Indeed, the Cellucci administration insisted it was “on time, on budget.’’ In a recent Globe interview, Charles Baker, then Cellucci’s chief financial officer, now the Republican gubernatorial candidate, insisted the Big Dig financing plan was responsible, effective, and based on good-faith assurances by other government officials. In 2000, James Kerasiotes was forced out as Turnpike Authority chairman on the premise that he, alone, knew that was untrue.

And that’s just the project cost. What about the safety concerns, which cost a human life? By 1999, engineers knew ceiling anchor bolts were failing. Senior managers knew the ceiling was falling down, but moved the project forward anyway. The top public decision makers all said they knew nothing about it. A civil suit filed by Del Valle’s family ended with a $28 million settlement, to be paid by a raft of defendants, including construction contractor Modern Continental, project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

Problems, long in the making, started unraveling during Amorello’s tenure. Leaks in the Artery tunnel and icicles on the Zakim Bridge popped up in 2005. Then, in July 2006, tons of concrete crashed onto Del Valle.

Her life ended. Amorello’s crash began. And Massachusetts watched.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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