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MA Turnpike Chief Resigns After Big Dig Collapse

Thu August 03, 2006 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman, under fire since 12 tons of falling concrete killed a woman in a Big Dig highway tunnel, resigned July 27 after weeks of pressure from the governor.

In an agreement with the state, Matthew Amorello has until Aug. 15 to clean out his office, but he will continue to be paid his $223,000 annual salary through February.

He also avoids a hearing scheduled Thursday during which he would have been deposed - under oath - at a time when federal and state officials are conducting criminal investigations into the deadly collapse.

"I think this is good news for the commonwealth, the right step for Matt Amorello to have taken," Gov. Mitt Romney said. "Clearly it will save the taxpayers and the rate-payers the cost of an extensive legal battle, and it also allows the citizens and toll-payers to have confidence again in the Turnpike Authority."

Lawyers for Amorello and Romney hammered out details of his resignation agreement late Wednesday, after Supreme Judicial Court Justice Francis X. Spina ruled Romney could go forward with the administrative process to remove Amorello.

Romney said that he would search for a new Turnpike Authority chairman outside the political arena but had no specific candidate.

"I want somebody who knows how the wheels of automobiles and trucks turn and how engineers can do a fine job finishing the work of the Big Dig," he said.

Amorello’s family owned a construction company, but he made his career in politics. He was elected to the state Senate in 1990 and served four terms before losing a bid for Congress. In 2002, he was appointed to head the Turnpike Authority by Romney’s predecessor.

Romney, a fellow Republican now considering a run for president, has long been critical of Amorello and repeatedly called on him to step down.

After the deadly July 10 collapse of several heavy ceiling panels, Romney seized control over tunnel inspections from Amorello’s agency and began legal efforts to oust him.

The $14.6 billion Big Dig highway project had already been troubled by leaks and cost overruns, but the collapse and the discovery of other loose ceiling bolts in the days that followed heightened concerns about the very safety of the tunnels.

Amorello, 48, had shepherded the Big Dig highway project through the final phases of construction. He faced consistent criticism for having what some described as an imperial manner and clashing with critics, and that criticism increased after the collapse.

"He is secretive and resists oversight by his own board, and refuses to share information," Romney said recently. "People should not have to drive through the Turnpike tunnels with their fingers crossed."

Amorello resisted stepping down, saying it was important to get to the bottom of why the ceiling panels fell.

"All of our energies are to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again," he said. "It’s a commitment I made to the family. It’s a commitment I made to the people of Massachusetts."

Amorello’s job involves overseeing the 138-mi. Mass Pike, which stretches from Stockbridge to Boston’s Logan Airport, but his primary responsibility has been the Big Dig.

The most expensive highway project in U.S. history, the Big Dig buried the old elevated Central Artery under Boston and linked Interstate 90 to the airport. It took more than a decade to complete because of delays and cost overruns and has been plagued by leaks, falling debris and problems blamed on faulty construction. In May, six current and former employees of a concrete supplier were charged with fraud for allegedly concealing that some concrete delivered to the Big Dig was not freshly mixed.

The ceiling collapse in a connector tunnel that routes traffic toward the airport led to the closing of nearby tunnels while engineers investigate the cause and devise fixes.

The focus of the inspections has been on epoxy-bolt fasteners that anchored the ceiling panels in some tunnels. Hundreds of them have failed ”pull tests’ in the past two weeks. State and federal prosecutors are now investigating whether criminal charges are warranted.

Jeffrey Denner, who represents the husband of Milena Del Valle, the woman killed in the collapse, called Amorello "a very decent man in a very difficult situation."

"I think he had little choice (but to resign) given the fact that with all the damaging disclosures that have been made over the past week or so, it all happened on his watch, and I think he has to take responsibility for it," Denner said. He plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

Turnpike board member John Moscardelli said Amorello told him he agonized over the decision.

"He just felt that it was the right thing to do for the public, for the Turnpike Authority, and of course, for him and his family," Moscardelli said.

"I feel very, very badly for him," Moscardelli said. "I know how hard he worked."

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