Mass. Turnpike Chairman Closes Public Discussion of Big Dig Leaks

July 19, 2007

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, in its first meeting with a board chairman who pledged openness and transparency, closed its public session Tuesday before a promised discussion of leaks in Big Dig tunnels.

“I don’t want to go into details here – any further details,” said Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen at the conclusion of his first meeting as head of the five-member board. He then requested reporters leave the meeting room in the state Transportation Building.

Afterward, he said the discussion did not focus on any worsening leaks, but rather a persistent problem of “water infiltration” that may affect legal negotiations between the Turnpike and its contractors.

A government watchdog organization said the decision was “certainly not what we had hoped” from the new administration.

“There are only limited exceptions to the Open Meeting Law, and one of them actually is litigation strategy,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “On the other hand, general discussion about problems on roads is certainly not an exemption and should be public. It’s the public’s money, it’s the public’s safety and it needs to be discussed publicly.”

Later Tuesday, Cohen’s office said it would release a summary of what was discussed at the closed meeting but backtracked, instead releasing a written statement defending the original decision to go into executive session, calling it “prudent.”

“It was intended to avoid a situation in which public disclosure of data or conclusions might inadvertently compromise ongoing litigation and cost recovery efforts,” Cohen said in the statement.

Cohen said there’s no evidence of new safety issues. “If anything, the data show that water infiltration is actually declining,” he said in the statement.

Leaks have plagued the $14.798 billion project – the most expensive public works construction in U.S. history – since it buried Boston’s Central Artery in a tunnel system. A year ago, ceiling panels fell in one tunnel section, killing a 39-year-old Boston woman.

Both the leaks and the collapse are the focus of concurrent civil and criminal investigations led by Attorney General Martha Coakley and U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan. The Turnpike is seeking to recover costs from some of its contractors, including project overseer Betchel/Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Cohen, who assumed office after Gov. Deval Patrick was sworn in last January, became Turnpike chairman on July 1, replacing Gov. Mitt Romney administration holdover John Cogliano.

At that time, Cohen, a former reporter, pledged public accountability and access, declaring: “Political battles and leadership turnover in the last administration squandered a lot time and energy. All of these woes have taken a toll on this agency and left it with a damaged reputation, unclear mission and an uncertain future.”

Among the items for his first board meeting was “tunnel leak repair update,” according to the public agenda posted on the Turnpike’s Web site.

Yet at the conclusion of the meeting, Cohen said the board was going into a closed-door executive session to discuss collective bargaining and legal matters.

When reporters asked about the leak update, Cohen conferred with his aides, left the room and then returned. The chairman then said the agenda must have been mistaken and any discussion about leaks would be private.

Michael Lewis, project director for the Big Dig, sat before the board, prepared with a multimedia presentation.

Cohen then asked reporters to leave the room.

Three hours later, Cohen emerged and said, “The concern was that we not disclose information publicly today that could have a detrimental impact on the (leak) negotiations.”

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