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Mass. Highway Official Fired After Light Fixture Collapse

Fri August 12, 2011 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) The state’s transportation secretary fired a top highway supervisor on Åug. 2 following an investigation into remarks he made when a 110-pound corroded Big Dig light fixture collapsed earlier this year.

Secretary Jeffrey Mullan said Aug. 2 that district highway supervisor Helmut Ernst no longer works for the Department of Transportation.

Ernst told The Associated Press that he hadn’t had any contact with the department in days and hadn’t officially been notified of his status. He said he learned of his dismissal through press reports.

“They still haven’t given me anything in writing,” he said in a brief telephone interview, declining to comment further.

Ernst told The Boston Globe in an interview in July that he and other engineers “have been trained not to” put safety concerns into writing, citing litigation that arose from the death of a motorist after a Big Dig ceiling panel collapsed in 2006.

Mullan said Ernst wasn’t being fired for talking to the press, but he declined to say why he was being let go, citing personnel confidentiality requirements.

“It’s not accurate to say he’s being fired based on comments,” Mullan told reporters. “He’s being fired based on the results of the review that has caused me to conclude that he can no longer serve as the District 6 highway director.”

Mullan had announced an investigation following the publication of Ernst’s comments. He said the investigation has now concluded and no one else faces disciplinary action. He also said that the kind of conduct described by Ernst doesn’t occur at the agency.

“I think anyone who’s watched the DOT over the past couple years knows we’ve made tremendous efforts to be completely transparent,” Mullan said. “I’m not concerned about that.”

Ernst had been on paid leave. Mullan said he tried to work with Ernst to find him another job in the department but those efforts failed. He said Ernst won’t receive a severance package.

Ernst isn’t the first Big Dig official to lose his job as a result of the collapse of the light fixture in February.

The failure of inspectors to immediately report the corrosion problem also led Mullan to accept the resignation of former state highway administrator Frank Tramontozzi.

The light fixture crashed to the roadway in the Thomas P. Tip O’Neill Tunnel on Feb. 8. No vehicles were hit, and no one was injured.

Mullan disclosed the incident at a March 16 news conference. He has said he first learned of an issue in the tunnel by e-mail March 1 but it made no reference to the falling light fixture.

He said he learned about the fixture one week later during a regularly scheduled staff briefing. By then, he said, an inspection of the approximately 23,000 other light fixtures in the tunnel was already well under way.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who was in England on an overseas trade mission at the time, was told about the incident one day before the news conference. Mullan has since said he should have told Patrick of the problem sooner.

Mullan’s future at the Department of Transportation is uncertain. He said in July that he told Patrick in May of his intention to step down this year for personal reasons.

Mullan, who earns $150,000 a year as transportation secretary and previously earned $160,000 as head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, didn’t elaborate on what those reasons were, but he has college age children.

On Aug. 2, Mullan said he hasn’t made any final decision but he still intends to leave by the end of the year.

He declined to say whether his salary is a factor in that decision, but he did say he wanted to spend more time with his family.

“Anybody who’s observed my four and a half years of service knows that I’ve given my all and it’s been a tremendous strain on my family and my ability to spend time with my children,” he said.

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