Second opinion on causes will be a secret one

The report by a Chicago firm hired by the state won't be made public until the NTSB findings are, perhaps in August 2008.

An unusual $2 million no-bid contract issued the day after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse 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.

The arrangement, which surfaced in internal Minnesota Department of Transportation documents reviewed by the Star Tribune, is raising fresh questions about a contract that already has been criticized by some legislators as unnecessary, given the federal NTSB's official inquiry into the Aug. 1 collapse.

The new questions are aimed at 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.

MnDOT did not provide an explanation as to why the timing of its consultant's report was important. 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.

Michael Koob, Wiss Janney's project manager on the bridge collapse investigation, dismissed 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."

For now, those facts will be kept from the public. Last month, Pawlenty's office said Wiss Janney was hired because "two pairs of eyes are better than one." State officials said last week they were barred by state and federal regulations from making Wiss Janney's findings public until the NTSB issues its conclusions.

The internal MnDOT documents show the agency arranged for Wiss Janney to submit a "95 percent" 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, which killed 13 people, would not be released to the public until August 2008 at the earliest.

The MnDOT 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 MnDOT official, said in an Aug. 27 e-mail.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor's only interest in the report's timing was to make sure it complied with applicable regulations. McClung added that the governor felt it "makes sense" for the consultant's report to come after the NTSB's findings.

"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."

In a written statement, a MnDOT 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.

Documents released by MnDOT showed that, in a conference call on Aug. 23, MnDOT and federal investigators forged a working relationship. But notes from the conference call also stated that after the NTSB released a preliminary report outlining the facts of the case, "MnDOT may, if it chooses, ask [Wiss Janney] to prepare an analysis of the facts; however, the board advises the preferred course would be to wait until the board releases its own final analysis."

On Sept. 10, the day Wiss Janney signed the state contract, MnDOT records show that the agency settled on a flow chart that called for the consultant to submit a 95 percent completed report to the agency before the NTSB report and then have Wiss Janney submit a final report after the federal investigation was made public.

The 35-page contract, while not mentioning the flow chart, calls for Wiss Janney to submit six bound copies of its 95 percent completed report to the state "when directed to do so by the state's project manager." The contract also calls for Wiss Janney to serve as an expert witness in any legal proceedings that the state faces over the bridge collapse.

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