Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Archive for August, 2007

Why we’re ignoring our crumbling infrastructure

Posted by David Kassel on August 28, 2007

Two reports detail how the federal and state governments are allowing our nation’s infrastructure to crumble away through unconscionable political neglect.

In The New Republic, Sarah Williams Goldhagen writes about our “shocking national indifference” to the maintenance and upgrading of our infrastructure.  Equally required reading is “Our Legacy of Neglect:  The Longfellow Bridge and the Cost of Deferred Maintenance,” a comprehensive report about the situation in Massachusetts by the Pioneer Institute.  (Disclosure:  I used to work with David Westerling, one of the report’s co-authors, at the Massachusetts Inspector General’s Office.)

Between these two reports, a convincing case is made that unless we take meaningful steps to address this situation, the United States is headed from industrialized toward third-world nation status.  It’s already unsafe to drive on our bridges and through our tunnels.  Much of our population lives near environmentally contaminated sites, our school buildings are falling apart, our water treatment plants are aging, our dams are unsafe, and our national parks are unmaintained, among other problems  And all this is happening as new infrastructure demands are being created due to the ongoing shifts in our population from core cities into far-flung suburbs.

The Longfellow Bridge report notes that while there are pockets of excellence in Massachusetts government on maintenance issues…

there appears to be no high-level awareness of the magnitude of the problem of deferred maintenance, or any comprehensive statewide effort to address it in either the legislative or the executive branch of state government.

The report estimates a maintenance backlog in Massachusetts of $17 billion, across all levels of state government, including bridges, highways, MBTA facilities, the state university system and state and community colleges, courthouses and others.  The basic problem is that since asset deterioration occurs gradually, there is a tendency to defer preventative maintenance. At the same time, maintenance is treated in most agency budgets as a discretionary expense–one which takes away from spending on programs in the agency’s operational budget.  This, combined with a “diffusion of responsibility and outright inability to monitor asset condition,” results in the “massive and growing maintenance backlog.”

The Longfellow Bridge report cites DeSitter’s “Law of Fives,” which projects that if maintenance is not performed on a public asset, then repairs equaling five times the maintenance costs are required. It notes that states, including Texas and Arizona, that have created State Infrastructure Banks and have moved ahead of Massachusetts in providing for transportation infrastructure.

It will be a key test to see what Governor Deval Patrick does about this.  Will he propose legislaltion, as the report recommends, to enact a capital maintenance reserve fund, adequately fund the state Division of Capital Asset Management and empower it to oversee and monitor the state’s asset maintenance, and issue an Executive Order to compel state agencies to use DCAM’s existing computerized CAMIS database, which tracks the condition and maintenance of state-owned buildings?

In her article in The New Republic, Goldhagen suggests that we may have already traded places with many nations, particularly those in Asia, that used to be considered underdeveloped or “third world.”  She points out that:

Highways and roads in those (Asian) countries are not pitted moonscapes.  Public transportation, from trains to trolleys to buses, is plentiful, in good repair, and punctual.  Public structures of all kinds–from governmental and civic buildings to public parks and urban plazas to “streetscape” elements such as pedestrian bridges and roadway lighting fixtures–are of immensely higher design quality and in immensely better shape (than in this country).

Goldhagen identifies a number of politcal reasons for the American neglect of its infrastructure, but perhaps the key is that since the Reagan administration, the federal government has fobbed off its responsibility for maintenance and upgrades to state and local governments.   Partly as a result of that, the maintenance and upgrading of our infrastructure is increasingly falling into private hands.  Goldhagan believes this infrastructure privatization spells “social disaster” in the short term and “economic disaster” in the long term.  As Goldhagan puts it:

Infrastructure is the classic public good that the free market does not and cannot provide.  On the scale that is necessary, only the federal government can make the difference.

Goldhagen makes a number of recommendations that correspond, in a national sense, to the Massachusetts-based recommendations in the Longfellow Bridge report.  Among them are the need for a National Infrastructure Agency, that would plan, fund, and coordinate infrastructure maintenance and improvement over the long term.  She also recommends that Congres establish a federal line-item capital budget for infrastructure maintenance, as most other developed countries have done.

Finally, Goldhagen calls for leadership in addressing our infrastructure needs, and specifically lauds the leadership of then Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci in the 1980s in getting Boston’s Big Dig project to happen.  The lack of such leadership today explains why the “pathetically ill-conceived” design for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway on the reclaimed Central Artery land has been “hung out to dry,” she maintains.

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Posted in Oversight, Private, Public | 7 Comments »

The problem is urgent, but the proposed solutions are vague

Posted by David Kassel on August 24, 2007

 The federal government needs to “reinvent” itself, or we’re going to succumb to mounting deficits and costs of entitlement and other programs, the nation’s chief governmental oversight official contends.

Comptroller General David M. Walker, who heads the Government Accountability Office, predicts a grim future if we don’t make some major changes.  In a speech posted this month on the GAO’s website, Walker maintains that:

If we continue as we have, policy makers will eventually have to raise taxes dramatically and/or slash government services the American people depend on and take for granted. Just pick a program–student loans, the interstate highway system, national parks, federal law enforcement, and even our armed
forces.   

Walker maintains that “America is on a path toward an explosion of debt,” and that is happening in the face of increasing problems associated with globalization, ranging from environmental threats to transnational terrorism.

It’s part of a “Fiscal Wake-up Tour” that Walker has engaged in, in conjunction with three ideologically diverse organizations–The Brookings Institution, The Concord Coalition, and The Heritage Foundation.

“We need nothing less than a top-to-bottom review of federal programs,
policies, and operations,” Walker adds.  “Congress and the President need to decide
which of these activities remain priorities, which should be overhauled, and which have simply outlived their usefulness.”

It’s an important warning and prescription, and yet just vague enough that it’s not likely to spur anyone to immediate action.  That is a problem.  When Walker gets specific, it’s in the field he knows best: government auditing.  There is a need, he says, to “go global” in the accounting and auditing procedures of federal agencies and programs.  In a separate slide presentation on the GAO website, Walker suggests, among other things, presenting information on “intergenerational equity” for social insurance programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.

Those are good ideas, not in the sense that they will by themselves help us solve our problems, but in the sense that they will help us see and understand them more clearly.

But it’s when Walker adopts the 30,000-foot perspective, as the Heritage Foundation puts it, that the vagueness sets in.  Entitlement reform is especially urgent, he says:

Unless we reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, these programs will eventually crowd out all other federal spending. Otherwise, by 2040 our government could be doing little more than sending out Social Security checks and paying interest on our massive national debt.

 That may be the case, but Walker isn’t wading into the controversy over how we carry out those reforms.  The Heritage Foundation, for instance,  calls for cuts in entitlement programs, and opposes any expansions in them, particularly plans to expand the State Childrens Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which helps states provide health insurance to poor children.

The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, opposes entitlement cuts, arguing instead in favor of such things as increasing the retirement age for Social Security and increasing premiums for Medicare.

Walker does suggest that all sectors of society will have to become involved in seeking solutions.  In the slide presentation, he calls for “good governance, transparency, and accountability” in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  He suggests, for instance, that more information be presented in the president’s annual budget, including an annual 40-year “fiscal exposure statement.”  The presentation, however, didn’t seem to include similar suggestions for the private and nonprofit sectors.

The Fiscal Wake Up Tour seems like a great idea.  But the price of the ideological diversity of the three organzations that make up the coalition appears to be an unfocused message.

Posted in Nonprofit, Private, Public | 4 Comments »

Who was responsible for the Big Dig tunnel collapse?

Posted by David Kassel on August 15, 2007

 In announcing a manslaughter indictment against Powers Fasteners last week in connection with the fatal collapse of a portion of a Big Dig Tunnel ceiling last year, Attorney General Martha Coakley revealed her mindset about determining responsibility in the case.

The indictment against the company may well not be the last that Coakley seeks in the death of  Milena Del Valle.  Yet Coakley’s quote in the Globe article on the indictment was telling.  

“The direct result of the behavior of Powers was the cause of her (Milena Del Valle’s) death,” Coakley said. “I won’t be satisfied until there is a conviction in the case.”

One is tempted to ask whether she will be satisfied at that point.  But if she gets one conviction or 10 convictions,  will that make our highway and tunnel system safer?  Will those truly reponsible for the accident have been held accountable?

I wish Coakley would take the time to read What Sank the Thresher?, a revealing article about who was responsible for the sinking of a nuclear-powered submarine  off the coast of Cape Cod with the resulting loss of 129 men April 1963.  It was the worst submarine disaster in U.S. history; and while we’re talking about subs here and not tunnels, there are a number of telling parallels with the Big Dig catastrophe.  I wish the editors at The Globe and in other media outlets would read this article as well.  

The Thresher sank during a test dive after a pipe burst in the hull of the vessel, setting off a chain of events that sent the sub plunging to ocean depths that collapsed and split apart the hull. 

 Interestingly, the court of inquiry in the Thresher case did not recommend disciplinary action for any of the parties involved, and apparently the case resulted only in the loss of a promotion for one Naval officer, the skipper of the Thresher’s escort vessel on the day it sank.   Yet, in the wake of reforms adopted in Naval operations and procedures following the sinking, the safety of our submarine fleet was significantly and dramatically improved. 

Although the exact cause of the sinking of the Thresher has never been conclusively determined, the resulting investigations found, according to the article, that there was (and I’ll admit this isn’t as sexy as alleging criminal behavior by individual parties):

 …a catastrophic failure in the Navy’s basic approach to design, development, and testing.  They (the investigations) pointed up a critical need for the creation and implementation of engineering standards that would be strictly observed, especially in the design and construction of complex and technologically sophisticated systems.

Compare this with the basic findings of the National Transportation Safety Board in July, following its year-long investigation of the Big-Dig tunnel collapse.  The four basic “safety issues” that the NTSB identified during its investiation were (and these drew barely a mention in the news articles covering the release of the report):

    • Insufficient understanding among designers and builders of the nature of adhesive anchoring sytems (for the tunnel ceiling panels);
    • Lack of standards for the testing of adhesive anchors in sustained tensile-load applications (heavy loads over time);
    • Inadequate regulatory requirements for tunnel inspections; and
    • Lack of national standards for the design of tunnel finishes

In both cases, investigators pointed to design and testing problems and a lack of industry standards for the manufacture of the submarine and tunnel systems respectively.

This isn’t to say that human error and negligence, even criminal culpability, weren’t involved in either case.  They were.   Companies were eager to make a profit in both cases, and both Navy and CA/T officials were subject to budgetary and political pressures in completing their respective projects.

In the case of the Thresher, there was political pressure to deploy new weapons systems quickly and inexpensively in reponse to the Soviet threat, leading to the relaxation of standards in the rush to launch the submarine.

The NTSB hints at the existence of bugetary pressures in describing the decision to install precast concrete panels in the I-90 Connector Tunnel in Boston, which were cheaper and less time-consuming to install than the custom-engineered, lightweight concrete panels that had been installed previously in the Ted Williams Tunnel.  Yet, like the Ted Williams Tunnel, the I-90 Tunnel had no embedded ceiling supports, leading to the decision to use adhesive anchors to hold the ceiling panels.  The adhesive or epoxy is, of course, what gave way, causing the ceiling collapse.

In both the Thresher and the I-90 Tunnel, testing prior to completion or commissioning revealed the potential for catastrophic problems with key equipment.  During the final overhaul of the Thresher at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard about a year before the sub sank, 14 percent of the sub’s soldered pipe joints failed ultrasonic tests.  Despite these results, Portsmouth “did not aggressively pursue the ultrasonic inspection of … (pipe) joints in Thresher,” the article quotes the court of inquiry as determining, even though the rejection rate “was a clear indicator that additional action was required.”

Similarly, the NTSB report noted that in September 1999, four years prior to the opening of the I-90 Tunnel, a Modern Continental employee noticed that several of the anchors in the tunnel ceiling had begun to pull out.  Yet, neither Modern Continental nor Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering consortium that designed and managed the Big Dig, continued to monitor the performance of the anchors or to determine the cause of the problem.

In both cases, investigators found plenty of blame to go around.  Powers Fasteners came under withering criticism in the NTSB report for failing to identify the source of the failure of its product in the tunnel ceiling in 1999.  The report states that at least some officials within the company were aware that Powers’ fast-set epoxy was subject to long-term load failure or “creep,” but this information was apparently not passed on to Powers engineers who examined the failed anchors in the tunnel. 

Compare this once again to the inquiry into the Thresher, in which the court found that serious failures of similar pipe joints had been found in five other submarines prior to the launching of the Thresher, yet that information wasn’t shared or acted upon.

There are numerous other parallels between the two cases, involving a lack of testing requirements and a failure to follow existing standards in both instances.  In both cases, investigators made many recommendations to beef up testing, standards, and procedures.  In the 44 years since the Thresher’s sinking, the Navy has lost only one other submarine–the Scorpion, which sank at sea in 1968.

 At a Congressional hearing into the Thresher case, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, was asked how it was possible that no one could be held at fault for the Thresher’s sinking.  Rickover’s answer was:

Who is responsible?  With the present Navy system, this is an almost impossible question to answer.  The nearest you can come is to say that ‘the Navy is responsible.’  In other words, all you can do is point to a collectivity.

Posted in Oversight, Private, Public | 3 Comments »

A rush to judgment on the Big Dig tunnel collapse

Posted by David Kassel on August 10, 2007

The race is on to find a scapegoat for the fatal collapse of the ceiling tiles in the Big Dig Tunnel.

 Yesterday, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced a manslaughter indictment against Powers Fasteners, the company that supplied the fast-drying epoxy glue that was used to hold the anchor bolts that subsequently slipped, causing last year’s tragic collapse.

The Boston Globe then followed up today with a story, accusing Powers Fasteners of having covered up problems it was having with the glue on housing projects in Singapore.

Powers Fasteners may well be guilty of all of these charges and may deserve to have the book thrown at them.  But certainly others are to blame in this mess.  Yet from the tenor of The Globe’s reporting, in particular, I’m getting the feeling that the glue supplier is getting stuck, so to speak, with the rap.

The big revelation in today’s Globe story is presented without attribution and yet stated as fact that Powers Fasteners never mentioned the Singapore problems to Big Dig engineers. 

It’s certainly possible that Powers didn’t bring up the Singapore problems to their Boston clients.  But that is not necessarily relevant if, as Powers Fasteners asserts, they were unaware that the fast-drying version of the glue was being used on the Big Dig tunnel.  The fast-drying version, it turns out, was less strong and reliable than the standard epoxy that Powers Fasteners was also supplying to the Big Dig project and reportedly thought was being used to secure the ceiling tiles. 

 In fact, as The Globe notes in the 10th paragraph of the story, Powers Fasteners engineers did warn Big Dig engineers that the fast-drying version was not appropriate for use in securing overhead tiles.  Why is this piece of exculpatory information placed so far down in the story?

If in fact Powers Fasteners was unaware that the fast-dry glue was being used on the Big Dig tunnel ceiling, why would they feel obligated to tell Big Dig officials about the Singapore problems they were having with it?  Say guys, just in case you might decide to use our fast-dry product for a purpose we warned you was unsafe, we want to let you know that our fast-dry product isn’t working well in Singapore. 

Today’s Globe story is based on apparently leaked documents, which immediately raises questions about the motivation of the leakers and who they might have been.  Could it have been Coakley, or could it have been Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering consortium that managed the design and construction of the project?  Could it have been Modern Continental, which actually applied the fast-dry epoxy?  Could it have been the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority?

And how do we know, by the way, that Powers Fasteners didn’t say anything about the Singapore problems to the Big Dig engineers?  The Globe makes that assertion based on the claim of an unnamed lawyer in the case. 

In yesterday’s story, we learned, by the way, that Bechtel is negotiating a settlement of the case with Coakley to get them off the hook of possible criminal and civil charges for numerous defects in the project.

And it is the Globe’s editorial page that informs us today that Coakley may have a conflict of interest in this case because she is pursuing both civil and criminal cases against Powers Fasteners and potentially other parties.  If Powers Fasteners is found guilty of the criminal charge, it will be easier for Coakley to obtain civil convictions and damages against them.

None of this is to assert that Powers Fasteners is a acompletely innocent party here that’s being framed.  It does appear from the documents that The Globe obtained, that they deceived their Singapore supplier about the poor quality of their fast-dry epoxy.  The authorities in Singapore may well have a legal case against them.  But it’s not clear yet, despite The Globe’s assertions, that Coakley has a case against them.

Posted in Oversight, Public | Comments Off on A rush to judgment on the Big Dig tunnel collapse

Lobbying and ethics bill ends up with big loophole

Posted by David Kassel on August 8, 2007

 Last week, The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a landmark bill that would tighten ethics and lobbying rules for Congress.  But among the political compromises that led up to its passage was the removal of a measure that would have shone some needed light on nonprofit organizations that are being used more and more frequently to hide the lobbying activities of corporations, industry associations and others.

While the new lobbying bill will require lawmakers to disclose “bundled” campaign contributions from lobbyists and require lobbyists to detail their own campaign contributions, missing from the bill is a provision that would have imposed some minimal disclsure requirements on organizations that engage in so-called “Astroturf lobbying.” 

Public Citizen’s Clean Up Washington website describes Astroturf lobbying as involving the creation of organizations that appear to be grassroots coalitions with populist-sounding names to lobby Congress.  These groups, however, are not grassroots organizations at all, but are often bankrolled by large corporations, industry trade associations or wealthy individuals.

The disclosure measure appears to have succumbed to groundless claims made by opponents in persuading members of both parties in Congress to sink it.

“It’s a setback,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, which spent two years with other disclosure advocacy organizations in refining the Astroturf disclosure measure in order to respond to the continuing objections.   “We couldn’t overcome the alarmist talk.”  Conservative activists had begun spreading the false claim that all nonprofit organizations that are engaged in legislative advocacy in Washington would have to register as lobbyists under the measure.

But as Democracy21.org noted, the dropped provision would actually have required only professional Astroturf lobbying firms to register and report the amounts they receive to conduct Astroturf lobbying campaigns, and would have required lobbying organizations already registered to report the amount they spend on Astroturf lobbying efforts, if the amount is more than $25,000 per quarter.  According to Holman, the measure would not even have required those organizations to disclose their contributors, which would seem to be an important way to distinguish between true grassroots and Astroturf organizations.

Public Citizen has identified 12 organizations, which falsely represented themselves as grassroots entities and spent millions of dollars in recent years to persuade Americans to pressure legislators to support controversial legislative measures such as national energy policy, the estate tax and Medicare prescription drug legislation.   Among the organizations were Americans for Tax Reform and United Seniors Association, Inc. or USA.   According to Public Citizen, USA spent millions of dollars in 2002 in favor of candidates in House races who supported prescription drug legislation desired by the Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America, the trade association for the pharmaceutical industry.

USA’s latest IRS tax filing for 2005 indicates that the organization’s financial heyday may be over, however.  The filing noted that USA, which is based in Purcellville, VA, received $678,406 in contributions that year, yet the organization ran a $1.14 million deficit.  The contributors were not disclosed on the tax filing.  Among the expenses were $503,874 in unidentified professional fees and outside services.  The filing also noted that the organization received a $42,001 personal loan from Charles Jarvis, the organization’s president, who was paid a salary and other compensation totaling $113,141.

USA’s website, which lists Art Linkletter as the group’s national chairman, portrays the organization as a grass-roots alternative to the American Association for Retired Persons.  But the website appears to be somewhat out of date, bolstering the charge that USA was never more than a front group.  The most recent news postings on the website appear to date from 2005.  The  website attacks the AARP and supports the now defunct proposal for privatized Social Security accounts (again all from 2005).  Many of the links are no longer working, such as one in which the organization claimed to have “filed a private attorney general action against tobacco companies on behalf of Medicare and Taxpayers.”   Nine members of the USA Board of Directors were listed on the organization’s IRS 2005 tax filing.  Linkletter was not listed.

Public Citizen charges that Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) served as a conduit through which money from special interest organizations was funneled on its way to other groups.  One of the relationships in which ATR acted as a conduit was coordinated by now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  

ATR’s  website highlights its no-tax pledge, which the organization claims to provide to all candidates for state and federal public office to sign.  The website also claims that ATR serves as  a “national clearinghouse for the grassroots taxpayers’ movement…”

ATR’s 2005 IRS filing shows that the group took in $3.1 million in contributions that year.  The organization’s president, Grover Norquist, was paid $279,821.  The organization listed contributions totaling $3,171,076, ranging from from $5,000 to $445,000; and like, USA, did not disclose the names of the contributors.  The group also listed $795,300 in grants and allocations it had given out, including $200,000 to the National Alliance for Worker and Employer Rights, in Fairfax, Va.   The National Alliance for Worker and Employer Rights’ website states that that organization opposes unions and union-backed labor laws and opposes amnesty or guest worker programs for illegal immigrants. 

U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan (D-MA) made a last-ditch effort in May to offer the Astroturf lobbying disclosure provision as an amendment to the ethics and lobbying bill in the Judiciary Committee.   Accordng to OMB Watch , Meehan decried “distortions” that had been made about the provision.   But opposition by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers led to the rejection of the amendment by the committee.

Posted in campaign finance and lobbying, Nonprofit, Public | 1 Comment »