The Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation is inquiring about claims by a former quality manager for a Honolulu rail contractor who alleges he was fired last year after he complained about flaws in construction of columns and shafts that support the airport segment of the rail line.
Edward Morris, 55, alleged in a whistleblower lawsuit filed in Honolulu circuit court in January that he was fired after he and others working on the airport rail segment voiced concerns “over the continued lack of adherence to construction quality, design requirements, and construction specifications” on the project.
Among other concerns detailed in the lawsuit, Morris complained the reinforcing bar in the drilled shafts for the rail columns was not positioned correctly, unapproved materials were used in construction, and concrete was not tested properly.
Morris said in an interview Tuesday he has been contacted by the USDOT Inspector General but does not know how federal authorities learned of his allegations. Morris’ lawyer Michael Healy said Morris has not yet been interviewed by federal officials.
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation awarded Shimmick/Traylor/Granite, JV a $874.7 million design-build contract in 2016 to build the rail guideway and stations from Aloha Stadium to Middle Street. That is known as the airport segment, one of four major segments of the 20-mile rail line that is scheduled to open in late 2025.
The $9.2 billion rail line is the largest public works project in state history and is already the subject of a federal investigation involving the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office. HART has been served with three federal grand jury subpoenas seeking tens of thousands of documents, but it is unclear exactly what triggered the federal inquiry.
Morris started work as quality manager for rail contractor Traylor Bros. Inc., a partner in that joint venture, on June 26, 2017. Less than three months later he filed the first of dozens of “non-conformance reports” alleging construction was not being performed according to the design, contract and project specifications, according to the lawsuit.
Morris alleges in the lawsuit he was immediately “harassed” by staff from Shimmick, and the lawsuit describes an alleged pattern of intimidation and verbal abuse of quality inspectors on the project.
“I’ve been in the business for approximately 30-plus years, and in all of my experience working on rail projects both in Europe, Texas, Colorado and now Hawaii, I have never experienced anything like what I saw on the HART project,” Morris said in an interview Tuesday.
In particular, Morris said he was referring to “the direct and sometimes intentional efforts to put construction schedule and cost over quality.” Morris sued Traylor Bros. in Honolulu circuit court, alleging his firing violated the state’s whistleblower law.
HART did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Steven S. Owen, general counsel for Traylor Bros. Inc., said Tuesday that “we are disputing the contentions in Mr. Morris’ complaint, and we’re going to vigorously defend ourselves in the lawsuit and we don’t believe it has any merit.”
As for the claims that there were problems with the quality of construction on the rail project or that Morris’ concerns were ignored, “those allegations are false,” Owen said.
On Feb. 7, 2018, Morris went so far as to issue a stop-work order on a drilled shaft after watching Shimmick Construction and Legacy Foundations crews allegedly improperly install reinforcing bar. The bar was “not plumb, lacked proper clearance between reinforcement and was not seated in the shaft correctly,” according to the suit.
After issuing the stop-work order, Morrris alleged in the lawsuit he became involved in “a very hostile confrontation” with Rusty Lucido of Legacy Foundations, with Lucido telling Morris he was “costing the project money and time.”
Morris alleged he was later “pressured and intimidated” into lifting the stop-work order by Lucido and Shimmick Construction Project Director Dan Howell “because they had crews and equipment that were ‘idle’ and thus costing the project money,” according to the suit.
Morris lifted the stop-work order, but alleges in the lawsuit it was later determined the reinforcing bar was in fact not installed correctly, and he documented that lapse.
“Between Sept. 26, 2017, and July 23, 2018, the Lead Quality Engineer Tom Jackson, project quality inspectors, Consolidated Engineering Laboratories, HART and HDOT inspectors made increasing and continuous written and verbal complaints about project leadership’s hostilities and failure to comply with contract requirements related to inspection and testing,” the lawsuit alleges.
“There were complaints about harassment, intimidation, and the prevention of proper inspections procedures based on hostility” toward Morris, according to the suit.
The lawsuit alleges Traylor staff also complained about the failure to construct the drilled shafts properly, including concerns about the placement of reinforcing materials, the use of unapproved materials, and concrete that failed to pass testing.
Edward Morris, former quality manager for rail contractor Traylor Bros. Inc., filed dozens of “non-conformance reports” alleging problems with rail columns in the airport segment of the Honolulu project, including:
>> Testing showed concrete did not meet design requirements for strength.
>> Rebar was “skewed,” or positioned incorrectly, in drilled shafts.