In radio and television interviews this past week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley tried to put the best possible gloss on the $458 million state-federal civil settlement her office, along with the United States Attorney’s office in Boston, arranged with Big Dig contractors for their shoddy work on the project. (The consortium of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff is paying $407 million of that princely sum.)
But the ugly reality is that the state, desperate to fill its depleted coffers after the worst public-works boondoggle in US history, encouraged contractors to fork over big bucks in the civil settlement in order to avoid a criminal indictment for the ceiling collapse that killed motorist Milena Del Valle in July 2006. (The settlement agreement assures no indictment.) As we pointed out back in August of this past year, there is a word for when a private party threatens to get someone indicted unless money is paid: extortion.
In an interview on WBUR-FM on the morning of January 24, Coakley tried to finesse the PR-unfriendly image of the state strong-arming wealthy businessmen to buy their way out of a criminal prosecution. It was a task made more delicate since the only subcontractor to be criminally indicted so far is Powers Fasteners Inc., a relatively small, family-run epoxy manufacturer unable to come up with big “protection” bucks.
Even though “I believe that we have sufficient evidence to charge” the consortium with manslaughter, Coakley said, “we didn’t have evidence to support criminal charges against an individual” within Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. And to indict Bechtel and the other companies, she went on, would be a token gesture, since “corporations don’t go to jail.” (The maximum sentence for a corporation found guilty of manslaughter — the charge that would apply to criminal liability for the fatal tunnel-ceiling collapse — is $1000.)
Coakley managed to slide by an interview with WBUR host Bob Oakes without being asked the proverbial 64-thousand (or, more accurately, half-billion) dollar question: since corporations commit crimes only by the actions of their human officials and employees, how can you have had sufficient evidence to indict the corporation, but not enough to indict the individuals whose actions and inactions made the corporation into an alleged criminal?
This is not to say that any individual at Bechtel did commit a crime that led to Del Valle’s tragic death. Such a conclusion would ultimately have been up to the judicial system to reach. But that is impossible now because, despite US Attorney Michael Sullivan’s boast in the New York Times “to vigorously investigate and prosecute those who have perpetrated a fraud on the American people” in this case, prosecutors prioritized balancing the budget over pursuing justice.
I, for one, am not opposed to extracting money from the people responsible for these cost overruns. Our budget crisis is very real, in some measure due to the mismanagement of this project. Nor have I conducted a sufficient review of the evidence to conclude that a crime was committed by anyone. But what I do oppose is such blatant spin and dishonesty on the part of our officials. It is obvious Coakley and Sullivan are failing to explain the real reason they opted to settle, since the same evidence that supposedly damned Bechtel would have damned the responsible officials. The more likely explanation, then, is that the Bechtel executives were able to, and pressured to, buy their company (and, not so incidentally, themselves) a pass. It was an expensive pass, to be sure. But paying money almost always beats doing hard time.