The chairman of a panel of experts named to independently investigate the safety and durability of subway tunnels in Los Angeles has worked for two years as a consultant to a major engineering firm that designed the tunnels.
The relationship of the panel’s chairman and the design engineering firm was not disclosed publicly two months ago, when transit officials appointed the three-member tunnel panel to conduct an independent investigation.
The panel was formed after The Times reported that numerous segments of the twin subway tunnels between Union Station and Pershing Square were built with concrete thinner than the design-specified thickness of 12 inches.
The chairman of the tunnel panel, Edward J. Cording, confirmed in an interview that he worked until October as a consultant to a joint venture of Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. and Morrison Knudsen Corp. Cording’s work has supported design and construction of the superconducting super collider, an $11-billion tunnel and atom-smashing project in Texas.
Cording said he did not believe that his consulting with the Parsons Brinckerhoff joint venture--a relationship that existed when he was appointed in September to the Los Angeles tunnel panel--would compromise his independence. He said the relationship would in no way influence his review of the subway tunnels.
“I’ve found that the best approach is digging very hard to find out what’s really happening, trying to give it the best technical shot I can,” said Cording, who is a soils engineer and professor at the University of Illinois.
Cording, 55, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, said his consulting contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff terminated as of Oct. 19, when Congress killed all funding for the super collider. He declined to estimate how much he has been paid for the consulting work.
Cording said he informed Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Executive Officer Franklin E. White of his consulting work before White and the MTA’s chairman named the tunnel panel on Sept. 22.
An aide to White confirmed that the MTA executive knew of Cording’s consulting work. “We knew about Dr. Cording’s relationship,” said the aide, Michael J. Gonzalez, “and we did not think it was problematic.”
Others, while not criticizing Cording’s expertise, said his prior association with Parsons Brinckerhoff diminishes his standing as an independent observer and calls into question his continued service on the tunnel panel.
“I think that, even if there is no direct conflict of interest, the appearance of a conflict should make questionable (his) continued” service, said Marvin L. Holen, a lawyer and MTA board member. “Prior relationships, which also bear on future relationships, affect public acceptance of the panel’s findings.”
James Pott, an engineer and former board member of the MTA’s rail construction subsidiary, said he believes that White should remove Cording from the independent panel.
“It’s not independent, if Parsons Brinckerhoff is (Cording’s) client in a commercial relationship,” said Pott, formerly city engineer for Long Beach. “It diminishes the credibility of whatever the panel might come up with, and consideration should be given to starting over.”
A Parsons Brinckerhoff official, James E. Monsees, who was the lead tunnel designer for Metro Rail and the super collider, said although he worked with Cording on the Texas project, no conflict of interest exists.
“He’s a very professional person, he works a number of projects around the country,” Monsees said. “I think it’s a slur on his character to even mention” the potential of a conflict of interest.
State law prohibits public officials and some consultants from making decisions that could affect firms that have provided them with income within the preceding 12 months.
A spokeswoman for the state agency that interprets California’s conflict-of-interest law said that consultants, such as members of the tunnel panel, could be subject to the law’s provisions if their actions could be defined as governmental decisions. “Are they making a final, independent report and analysis?” asked Jeanette Turvill, of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
Robert M. Stern, an author of the conflict law and past general counsel of the FPPC, said: “Anybody who is doing the job of a key public official, even though they’re a private consultant, should be subject” to the law.
The tunnel panel, whose members are paid $150 an hour plus expenses, has been assigned by White and MTA Chairman Richard Alatorre to investigate the tunnel’s soundness and durability and to report findings or recommendations, probably in January. The panel’s work to date has been behind closed doors.
Cording confirmed that the panel has decided to conduct ultrasound or other, unspecified testing. And he acknowledged making an “unfortunate remark” regarding the safety of the tunnels during a tour with MTA rail construction staff officials Nov. 18.
Cording said he stated something to the effect that he would rather be in the subway tunnel than City Hall during an earthquake. He said that despite his remark, he has not prematurely judged the soundness of the tunnels prior to testing.
“It’s unfortunate that it came out sounding as if I was putting my stamp of approval on (the tunnel),” he said.
Cording’s remarks were repeated by an agency official Nov. 19 at a large staff meeting.
White, who was hired as the MTA’s top executive last spring, referred all questions to Gonzalez, his special assistant, who said in a prepared statement:
“We have no evidence of any problematic relationships involving any members of the panel. . . . It is our intention, should there be any problems identified by the panel, to do whatever is necessary to ensure the tunnel is safe.”
When members of the tunnel panel were named in September, White emphasized their independence, saying: “Their fate isn’t going to hinge on what we think of them when they’re done here. Those were the kinds of people I wanted.”
On Monday, White’s aide declined to say why Cording’s consulting arrangement with the Parsons Brinckerhoff venture was not disclosed publicly, although a press release from the MTA had mentioned Cording’s “one day’s work” on behalf of another Metro Rail contractor.
Cording said Monday he sees no reason to pledge that he would avoid future consulting work with Parsons Brinckerhoff.
The pre-existing relationship of Cording and Parsons Brinckerhoff comes to light at a time when there is a dispute over whether structural defects in the subway are attributable to construction, inspection or design work.
The contractor who built the tunnels, Tutor-Saliba Corp., contends that water damage has been caused by faulty design. But engineers employed by a consortium of firms headed by Parsons Brinckerhoff maintain that faulty construction caused the leaks.
The MTA board voted this month to approve about $80 million worth of new construction contracts to Tutor-Saliba--on condition that the board will reserve the right to terminate the company pending the final report of Cording and his two colleagues.
Engineers from Parsons Brinckerhoff have been centrally involved in the controversy over the thin tunnel walls. Engineer Timothy P. Smirnoff wrote in a June 24, 1992, memo that two corings of tunnel concrete, showing thicknesses of 9.28 and 10.14 inches, raised questions regarding the “serviceability and long-term performance” of the tunnel in the event of stresses from earthquakes or other forces.
Recently, Smirnoff’s bosses have told public officials that the structures are safe and sound and have advised the MTA that nine inches of thickness is adequate.