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Senate Panel to Investigate Subway Project

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citing evidence of “a series of abuses . . . that threatens the appropriate use of billions of taxpayer dollars,” the chairman of a powerful U.S. Senate subcommittee announced Thursday that his panel will launch an investigation into the construction of Los Angeles’ Metro Rail subway system.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R.-Del.) said in a letter to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich that the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, which he chairs, will examine the project in detail “to determine what must be done to correct mistakes, to provide a quality subway to the people of Los Angeles, and to hold accountable those who may have defrauded the system.”

For years, critics of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called for such high-level congressional scrutiny of its $5.8-billion subway construction project, without success. Roth’s action came in response to correspondence from Antonovich that called attention to a report in The Times quoting a former MTA consultant who alleged that the agency had for years ignored widespread fraud by its contractors.

A Senate source who declined to be identified said the panel is likely to look at issues of “incompetent engineering and management, cost overruns and inattention to safety issues.”

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Hearings are expected to begin in Washington next month.

The announcement of a new hurdle for Metro Rail came on the same day the MTA acknowledged that it suffered an embarrassing setback in its attempt to prove to federal authorities that it has overcome past problems related to worker safety. For the first time in the history of the troubled Metro Rail project, Cal/OSHA--the state’s workplace protection agency--was forced to obtain a court order to examine suspected safety hazards at a subway construction site Thursday, officials said.

Metro Rail contractor Tutor-Saliba-Perini refused to allow a state safety investigator to inspect the subway station it is building at Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Hollywood on June 5, according to a declaration filed in Los Angeles Superior Court to obtain an inspection warrant.

A Cal/OSHA inspector reported in the declaration that a Tutor official at the site said he believed the inspection constituted “harassment” and would not allow the inspector on site without a warrant.

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Cal/OSHA spokesman Rick Rice called the Sylmar-based contractor’s action “outrageous,” adding that it is “rare, if not unprecedented” for the agency to be denied permission to inspect a public works project.

The warrant was granted and the inspection proceeded Thursday, a week later. Said Rice: “If there were work hazards at the time of our initial effort to enter the site, it’s possible that the delay gave the contractor time to fix them.”

MTA project manager Stephen J. Polechronis did not defend the contractor, calling Tutor-Saliba’s action, though legal, a “serious error” that angered agency executives. “This is very frustrating,” he said. “We have a safe work site there, and yet we’ve got a dispute with a safety agency that calls our record of performance into question.”

Tutor-Saliba Vice President Charles B. Scarrott, who denied the inspector access last week, declined to comment on the incident.

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Safety has been one of the persistent problems at the MTA that have triggered intense concern from the federal government in the past, even though no workers have died. The MTA has been investigated by the General Accounting Office as well as the Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

However, when the Federal Transit Administration pulled its 50% funding of subway construction in 1994 after portions of Hollywood Boulevard sank up to 10 inches, the MTA promised to better manage the project as a condition of having the money restored.

On Thursday, Rae James, the MTA’s interim chief of staff, called Roth’s decision to launch a new investigation “disappointing.”

“The MTA has been the subject of numerous internal and external reviews, and we have always come away with public support for our program,” she said.

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She said MTA Chief Executive Joseph E. Drew and board Chairman Larry Zarian would travel to Washington next week to discuss Metro Rail funding with House Transportation Committee members and “would seek an audience” with Roth to discuss his probe.

Last week, a House transportation appropriations subcommittee slashed the MTA’s request for $158 million next year to $90 million. The recommended appropriation must still be reviewed by the full committee, the full House of Representatives, the Senate and President Clinton.

James also said that Zarian, Mayor Richard Riordan and County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke had sent a letter to California’s congressional delegation two weeks ago declaring that Antonovich--for years an outspoken critic of the subway project--did not speak for the MTA board.

She characterized his letter to Roth and frequent attempts to draw national scrutiny to Los Angeles’ subway construction as “detrimental” to the region’s transportation system.

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Antonovich’s letter to Roth declared that “corruption continues to survive and breed” at the MTA “like an exotic jungle fungus.”

He referred to allegations made in a lawsuit by Martin J. Gerlinger, a former project finance manager at Parsons-Dillingham, a management consultant to the MTA. Gerlinger alleged that the MTA did nothing to stop his firm from overbilling the government by $20 million from 1991 to 1994. Gerlinger also alleged that Parsons-Dillingham had charged Metro Rail for political contributions and the time executives spent at football games and the Rose Parade with MTA officials.

Reacting to the announcement of the Senate probe Thursday night, Antonovich said: “Someone had to be the designated driver at the subway happy hour. I’m very pleased that Sen. Roth has taken decisive action in shutting down the champagne fountain and sending the special interests home to sober up.”


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