An unusual no-bid contract issued the day after the I-35W bridge collapse continues to create controversy.
The contract, will allow state officials to get a confidential report on what could have caused the disaster months before the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation, has already been criticized by some legislators as unnecessary, due to the NTSB’s official inquiry into the collapse.
Now, questions are arising concerning whether Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other state officials could use the confidential findings for political purposes.
"It sounds to me to be very self-serving," said James Hall, a consultant who was chairman of the NTSB from 1993 to 2001.
A Pawlenty spokesman said the governor's office had no role in determining when the consultant, Wiss, Janney, Elstner and Associates of Chicago, would issue its report. Mn/DOT did not provide an explanation as to why the timing of its consultant's report was significant.
State officials said recently that they due to state and federal regulations, they could not make Wiss Janney's findings public until the NTSB issues its conclusions.
The internal Mn/DOT documents show the agency arranged for Wiss Janney to submit a "95%" completed report ahead of the NTSB's final report, and a company spokesman said the findings could be made available to state officials as early as May.
The NTSB said its report on a "probable cause" for the collapse would not be released to the public until at least August 2008.
The Mn/DOT documents show that agency officials initially discussed having Wiss Janney submit its entire report before the NTSB issued its final findings but were concerned how federal investigators would react.
"While permissible, this might be outside of what NTSB sees as the best practice, but might be finessed with the investigator in charge or other NTSB personnel, and would be dependent upon what MnDOT and/or the governor's office determine to be in the best state interest," Barbara Forsland, a Mn/DOT official, said in an Aug. 27 e-mail.
"This doesn't smell good," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. "It sure seems like they're trying to manipulate the media coverage on this."
Michael Koob, Wiss Janney's project manager on the bridge collapse investigation, rebuked suggestions that his company's report will provide political cover.
"We are not a hired gun," Koob said. "We're going to get the facts. The facts are going to be the facts."
In a written statement, a Mn/DOT spokeswoman defended the report's early release to the agency and said it was standard procedure to review reports that were not fully complete in order to provide input.