Bridge consultant helping federal probe

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2007 - 10:31 PM

The "independent" investigating firm hired by the state is working closely with federal engineers.

The $2 million consultant hired by state officials to probe the Interstate 35W bridge collapse is providing "essential" analysis to the federal investigation, a far closer relationship to the official inquiry than previously described, newly filed documents show.

The expanded role of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates indicates that the state's consultant is simultaneously a key part of the official investigation and under contract to be an expert witness for the state in any litigation arising from the Aug. 1 collapse.

In an affidavit filed last week in a Hennepin County court case, National Transportation Safety Board general counsel Gary Halbert said Wiss, Janney had "contributed materially" to the federal agency's factual report on the collapse and was participating in the NTSB's structural modeling group looking at the cause of the failure.

Wiss, Janney, said Halbert, "has been permitted access to the NTSB investigation solely because the capabilities it brings to the investigation, under its relationship [with the state], are deemed by NTSB to be helpful in the NTSB investigation."

Halbert's affidavit regarding Wiss, Janney's role differs from earlier statements by the NTSB, which had described the Illinois-based engineering firm as having little to do with the federal agency's official investigation into the collapse. In an interview last month, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Wiss, Janney had been separately hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "We're working with MnDOT, we're not working with the consultant," he said.

Firm's role expanded

Williams insisted Thursday that Halbert's comments were not inconsistent with the agency's previous descriptions. But Williams added that Wiss Janney's role "has been more defined" over time and "may continue to expand." In September, Williams had said it was unusual for regulatory agencies, such as MnDOT, to separately hire technical consultants during a NTSB investigation.

A MnDOT spokesperson Thursday referred all questions to the NTSB.

Wiss, Janney's hiring had been authorized as an "independent investigation" by Gov. Tim Pawlenty within hours of the collapse, and has been criticized by some as an attempt by MnDOT and the governor to provide them with political cover for their roles in the collapse. When state officials formally signed a contract with Wiss, Janney in mid-September, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the move was akin to "the philosophy that two pairs of eyes are better than one."

On Thursday, however, McClung downplayed Halbert's statements. "It's our understanding that Wiss, Janney is working with the NTSB, and the NTSB is managing the investigation as they do in these situations," he said.

In mid-October all three entities -- Wiss, Janney; MnDOT and the NTSB -- had signed a pledge to withhold information regarding the investigation from the public before it was released or approved by federal investigators.

In his Nov. 8 affidavit, Halbert said that Wiss, Janney is "providing essential engineering and failure analysis expertise to support and enhance" MnDOT's efforts.

Halbert's affidavit emerged as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of victims of the collapse, who argue that MnDOT is unnecessarily withholding public data from them at the same time it is allowing Wiss, Janney wide access to the same data and key parts of the bridge.

At a hearing Thursday, a Hennepin County judge said he hoped to rule on the data request by early December. The state's Assistant Attorney General Ken Kohnstamm said state officials had been cooperative with lawyers for the victims, and last week had allowed the attorneys to inspect bridge pieces that had been taken to a gravel pit near Afton.

He also said the state data practices act did not apply to the pieces of the bridge. "The bridge is not data," he said.

Kohnstamm told Judge Herbert Lefler that, despite both the NTSB probe and Wiss, Janney's hiring by MnDOT, "there is a single investigation."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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