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Bill is filed for independent cost recovery on Big Dig

By Raphael Lewis and Sean P. Murphy, Globe Staff, 06/24/2003

More than two dozen state senators and representatives sponsored a new bill yesterday that would create a high-powered commission to take over Big Dig cost recovery from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The sponsors included powerful committee chairmen and lieutenants to House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, virtually assuring that the measure will make it to the floor in both chambers for a vote.

"The recovery of owed taxpayer money is not a partisan issue," said Senator Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican and one of 16 senators and 11 House members, almost all Democrats, who signed the legislation yesterday.

"I want all the money back," said Representative Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat who also signed the bill. "We need to have a group of people that are working on this to keep it at the forefront, until the issue is settled once and for all."

The legislation, authored by Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, would strip oversight of Big Dig cost recovery from the Turnpike Authority and hand it to seven high-level government officials and legal professionals.

The commission -- which would include the state inspector general, the state auditor, a federal transportation official, and a Massachusetts law school dean -- would oversee a team of lawyers who will pore over the $2 billion in design and construction cost overruns on the Big Dig to date, looking for avoidable mistakes to pursue for refunds, civil litigation, or even criminal prosecution.

The Turnpike Authority has recovered just $35,707 for mistakes since construction began in 1991, none of it from the Big Dig's private- sector managers, Bechtel/

Parsons Brinckerhoff. A Globe series in February reported that about $1 billion in construction overruns could be tied to mistakes or poor management decisions made by Bechtel/Parsons, and the firms it oversees.

Pacheco, who held two days of hearings on the failings of the Big Dig's cost recovery process last spring, said at a news conference yesterday that he wrote the legislation because of "gross mismanagement within the project."

"There should be a light at the end of the Big Dig tunnel for the taxpayers of Massachusetts," he said, speaking on the Taunton Green, near his district office. "They should have complete confidence that any and all moneys recoverable for Big Dig mismanagement are aggressively pursued through a process with the utmost integrity."

Bechtel/Parsons spokesman Andrew Paven declined to comment yesterday. Previously, Paven has said that the managers committed no errors that the state could pursue for cost recovery and that the firm would cooperate fully with any new cost recovery commission.

Despite the bill's apparent appeal among lawmakers, some on Beacon Hill, including Governor Mitt Romney, wanted to be sure that the Turnpike Authority is divorced from any new cost recovery efforts. Pacheco's bill calls for the commission to rely largely on the Turnpike Authority's cost recovery team for research and recommendations. The bill would allow the commission to hire others to do such work simultaneously, as well as to dump the authority cost recovery team after eight months.

"The governor believes this effort should be independent from the Turnpike Authority and have the ability to bring in outside expertise if necessary," said Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman.

Senator Stephen A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who participated in the hearings in his role as cochairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, said the legislation "screams of independence," because so many harsh critics of the project's management will sit on the commission.

But he said everyone in the process was more than willing to strengthen the commission.

"I think we're all amenable to making this bill better," said Baddour, whose committee will probably be the next to review the bill. "But this commission . . . will keep everyone honest."

In the February series, the Globe reported that the state's Big Dig officials failed to convene a meeting of the cost recovery committee for almost two years. The chairman of the committee -- Michael P. Lewis, now the project director -- frequently relied on Bechtel officials to determine the firm's role in mistakes and cost overruns. Lewis did not return a call for comment yesterday, but previously acknowledged that cost recovery was not a "front burner issue" for him in the $14.6 billion project.

With such a history, lawmakers said their primary concern was to make sure that the new commission passes muster with a skeptical public.

Tarr, for example, said lawmakers might consider giving the commission more money and a tighter schedule, to ensure prompt action

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