Asleep at the wheel

The state's weak system for vetting contractors allows millions to flow to companies with poor environmental and workplace safety records. It needs to be fixed
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 3, 2012


In the early morning of April 9, 2007, a small armada of Cardi Corporation trucks crept up Rustic Hill Road in North Scituate to the construction site for the new Ponaganset Middle School.

Cardi, one of the largest construction companies in the northeast, dropped nearly 600 tons of soil in four towering piles — the largest of them measuring 264 feet long by eight feet wide.

But there was something odd about the dirt. It was unusually dark in color.

The state's Department of Environmental Management (DEM) got the tip that day: Cardi, it appeared, was poised to use contaminated fill on a site soon to be occupied by hundreds of children.

Testing in a Cranston lab turned up a stew of compounds deemed "probable human carcinogens" by the US Environmental Protection Agency: benzo(a)anthracene, benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(b)flouranthene, benzo(k)flouranthene, and chrysene — all in excess of thresholds laid out by the state.

Cardi removed the soil in May and deposited it in the state landfill. And a year later, the ruling came down: DEM labeled the incident a "Type I Major" violation — its most serious designation — and imposed a $251,546 fine.

>> READ: Road contracts associated with Cardi Corporation construction <<

It was not the firm's first significant environmental transgression and it would not be the last. But for Cardi, which hauled the soil from a section of the Route 195 relocation project in Providence, that record has proven no impediment to piling up state highway construction contracts.

Billing records show the firm has collected hundreds of millions from the Department of Transportation in recent years — $12 million in the first quarter of this year alone. And Cardi is not the only company with a checkered past winning highway contracts.

A Providence Phoenix investigation has found tens of millions in public dollars — including stimulus funds — flowing to a firm that pled guilty to defrauding taxpayers, a contractor who operated an illegal mine in defiance of federal officials, and even a convicted cocaine dealer. Several companies with records of significant environmental and workplace safety violations are getting work, too.

The findings raise important public policy questions about what, precisely, the state should consider in doling out contracts. Is the low bid enough? Should other factors play a role? If so, how much of a role?

But before the state can answer those questions, it has to know what would-be contractors are up to. And the Phoenix's investigation points to a fundamental weakness in Rhode Island's vetting process.

Neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut require prospective contractors to fill out extensive "prequalification" forms every 16 to 24 months, disclosing their work histories, financial standing, and — in Massachusetts — their environmental and workplace safety records.

Rhode Island, by contrast, only uses this sort of prequalification process for the occasional large, complex job — say, construction of a new building on the University of Rhode Island campus.

On the vast majority of projects, the state requires bidders to disclose a rather narrow band of criminal and environmental abuses. And even that limited system is broken.

The Phoenix found highway contractors routinely failing to report past violations, even under threat of "suspension, debarment, and/or prosecution for fraud." And the state, for its part, has made little effort to verify what contractors are writing on the forms.

At the municipal level, the Phoenix found, there are even fewer checks on rogue contractors; indeed, Rhode Island's largest cities require almost no disclosure of wrongdoing at all.

But there's plenty of it.

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