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Kerry blocks Bush pick for top US highway job

Ties cost overruns to ex-Big Dig boss

WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry is blocking the White House nomination of fired Big Dig project manager J. Richard Capka to head the Federal Highway Administration, calling him a symbol of the Bush administration's ''incompetence'' in managing federal agencies.

The Massachusetts Democrat announced yesterday that he was using the Senate custom of placing a ''hold'' to block Capka from the post indefinitely. He equated Capka's selection with President Bush's choice of Michael Brown to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Brown was roundly criticized and ridiculed for his agency's botched response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

''We can't afford any more mismanagement and incompetence in Washington,'' Kerry said in a prepared statement. ''Unless we put a stop to this administration's stunning pattern of rewarding people who screw up, I'm afraid Richard Capka could become the 'Brownie' of highways.''

Capka was dismissed from his $165,000-a-year job as chief executive of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in June 2002 after less than two years on the job. He has been the highway administration's deputy administrator since August 2002, and has been acting administrator since August 2005, when Mary E. Peters stepped down after nearly four years. Bush nominated him for the department's top spot March 7.

Capka was hired as the Big Dig's project director in December 2000, and was soon criticized for failing to get a handle on spiraling costs at the massive construction project. Others lambasted him for backing million-dollar, six-month severance contracts for three lawyers who were involved with the project -- deals that he later acknowledged were mistakes.

Though Kerry blamed Capka for ''massive cost overruns,'' most of the billions in red ink associated with the project had surfaced previously during the tenure of James Kerasiotes, who was forced to resign in 2000. The Big Dig's estimated cost was about $14.5 billion when Capka took the job, and $14.6 billion when he was forced out, said David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

''The record is quite clear: The bulk of the cost overrun happened before Rick took over,'' Luberoff said. ''There were some management issues, but they really were political issues, and this was a time when the state's political leadership were really in turmoil.''

But Jim Aloisi, who has written a book about the Big Dig and was the Turnpike Authority's general counsel from 1989 to 1996, said Capka did virtually nothing to recoup portions of the overruns he inherited and too often yielded under pressure from members of the turnpike board.

Capka ''didn't do anything to deal with the then-still-escalating costs,'' Aloisi said. ''When he was here, he was in my judgment an exceedingly weak and ineffective manager, to the point of incompetence.''

Still, Stephen P. Crosby, who was chief of staff for then-acting Governor Jane Swift, a Republican, during much of Capka's tenure, said it's unfair to blame Capka for the Big Dig's enormous cost overruns. He took over a deeply troubled and complicated project after it was well underway and had to deal with a Turnpike Authority board that was reasserting its power over Big Dig management, Crosby said.

''It is a seriously bum rap to hang the Big Dig on Rick Capka,'' Crosby said. ''There are fair questions about his political skills and [political] experience. But that was a brutal firestorm.''

Crosby added that the comparison with FEMA's Brown, whose name became synonymous with government ineptitude after Katrina, is ''totally unfair.'' Though Brown was largely seen as a political appointee whose résumé included a stint at the International Arabian Horse Association, Capka is an experienced public servant who has been a high-ranking official in the highway administration for nearly four years, Crosby said.

Before coming to the Big Dig, Capka spent 29 years with the US Army Corps of Engineers, retiring as a brigadier general. At the corps, he was involved in efforts to restore the Florida Everglades and in the government's responses to major floods in California.

A transportation department spokesman, Brian Turmail, said Capka's public service has earned him the respect of Democrats and Republicans.

''Rick Capka's 30 years of service to this country as a decorated veteran and an accomplished civil servant has earned him the praise of President Bush and President Clinton,'' he said. ''We are certain once Senator Kerry gets the facts, he will support Rick Capka's nomination.''

Kerry's statement, however, left little room for him to reconsider. He compared Capka's nomination to former CIA director George Tenet's assertion that it was a ''slam-dunk'' probability that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force report that Democrats said focused only on oil and gas, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's prediction that the Iraq invasion would end in a quick victory.

''This nomination adds insult to incompetence,'' he said. ''I have a bad feeling that Richard Capka could be to highways what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence, what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy, and what Donald Rumsfeld is to prewar planning.''

Senators generally place holds in secret when they have concerns about nominees. Though Senate leaders can thwart such moves, to do so is considered an affront to the institution's collegiality.

Kerry's decision to go public about his hold on Capka is occurring as he has grown increasingly critical of Bush's management -- and as he considers another run for president. At a fund-raising dinner Saturday in New Hampshire, Kerry said Bush was overseeing the ''Katrina administration'' and blasted him for ''incompetent'' management.

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