Federal charges dropped in Boston against contractor in Big Dig collapse death

Charges dropped against company in Big Dig death

BOSTON — Federal prosecutors dismissed charges Friday against one of the Big Dig’s largest contractors in connection with a tunnel collapse that killed a Boston woman, but the company pleaded guilty to lying about construction defects in another tunnel.

Modern Continental Construction Co. Inc. pleaded guilty to 39 counts of making false statements in connection with a highway project.

The company acknowledged that some of its field employees knew about poor workmanship on a slurry wall panel in Interstate 93’s Tip O’Neill Tunnel before portions of the wall blew out in 2004, causing water to rush into the tunnel and creating a major traffic problem.

The company certified that the panels were built to specifications when they were not.

Modern also acknowledged that it overbilled the Big Dig by falsely charging higher journeyman rates for work really done by apprentices.

But prosecutors agreed to dismiss the most serious charges against the company, related to the government’s allegation that the company knowingly used the wrong type of adhesive to hold up concrete anchors that failed in the collapse of the Interstate 90 connector tunnel in July 2006.

Milena Del Valle, 39, of Boston, was killed when 26 tons of concrete fell on a car driven by her husband.

In a court filing, acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks said the dismissal of some of the charges against Modern “is in the interests of justice.”

Modern Continental President John Pastore entered the guilty pleas on behalf of the company. He declined to comment after the hearing.

The company’s lawyer, Michael Connolly, said Modern is pleased with the resolution of the criminal case but regrets submitting false statements about work on the slurry wall and overbilling the project.

Connolly said the overbilling amounted to about $12,000 per year over 15 years while the company performed more than $3 billion worth of work on the massive highway project.

Modern said in a statement that it pleaded guilty “to avoid a protracted trial and to bring closure” to the case.

Sentencing was scheduled for Aug. 11. Although U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock could impose a fine of up to $19.5 million on the 39 counts, it is unlikely the government will ever see any money from Continental.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection last June, the first business day after federal prosecutors charged the company with lying about its work.

“We believe that the government would be an unsecured creditor, and based on our knowledge of the assets in the bankruptcy estate, the government is not likely to recover any money,” Connolly said.

In November, the company reached a settlement with the state that includes $21 million related to the fatal collapse.

The $15 billion Big Dig project replaced an elevated highway in the heart of Boston with a series of tunnels, ramps and bridges. Considered the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, it was plagued by cost overruns, falling debris, leaks and other problems linked to faulty construction.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in a 2007 report that the wrong type of adhesive was used in the tunnel ceiling that collapsed. The report spread blame among Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, Modern Continental, designer Gannett Fleming and Powers Fasteners, the firm that supplied the epoxy.

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