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‘We will find the truth’: FBI involved in investigation into construction flaws at MGM National Harbor

There is  an ongoing investigation into what caused a 6-year old girl to be electrocuted at MGM National Harbor in June.
There is an ongoing investigation into what caused a 6-year old girl to be electrocuted at MGM National Harbor in June. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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The FBI is assisting Prince George’s County police in a broadening investigation into the causes of the severe electrical shock received by a child swinging on a lighted handrail at MGM National Harbor this summer, county law enforcement officials said Thursday.

Prince George’s Police Chief Hank Stawinski said the probe will examine the “systems” that could have played a role in the life-threatening injuries of the ­6-year-old girl at the casino and hotel on the shore of the Potomac River — including design, permitting, installation and inspection processes.

Determining if corners were cut to speed the opening of the $1.4 billion project, which officials have heralded as an “economic game changer” for the Maryland county, is “at the heart” of the investigation, the chief said.

Stawinski and the county’s state’s attorney, Angela D. Alsobrooks, said the investigation will look at whether there is the possibility of public corruption, which has cast a shadow over the county since the arrest of former county executive Jack B. Johnson in 2010. He served more than five years in prison for destroying evidence in a corruption scheme.

“We will find the truth in this — if that includes public corruption, so be it,” Alsobrooks said.

Their announcement came the same day an independent engineer hired by the county ­released a report describing the wiring feeding the lighted handrail where the girl was injured in June as “terrible” and some of the “sloppiest work” he has ever seen.

The engineer also said that he found problems in other lighting installations near the plaza where the girl was shocked and that those lights were turned off until they can be repaired to meet safety codes.

Haitham A. Hijazi, head of the county Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement, which issued the permits and approvals for the MGM facilities, said he felt “betrayed” by the electrical contractor and a third-party inspector but described the problems at the site as limited.

“There were only problems in that one location,” Hijazi said at a news conference Thursday morning, a few hours before Stawinski and Alsobrooks spoke.

Hijazi said he welcomed any investigation and was confident in how his office handled the process.

County officials have ordered MGM to audit all of its electrical systems and hardware over the course of the next year, with priority “given to areas where problem contractors worked,” said Brian Gsell, the engineer from Forensics Analysis & Engineering who did the independent report.

Hijazi said there is “no imminent danger” to visitors at MGM and that all issues with electrical wiring that were found following the girl’s injury have been corrected.

Hijazi, who attended weekly meetings about MGM during its construction, said third-party inspectors reported no electrical wiring that was “out of compliance” with county codes when the facility opened in 2016. He speculated that the electrical work was so poor that third-party inspectors “probably didn’t inspect” at all and “violated their own code of ethics” by not catching the shoddy work.

MGM spokeswoman Debra DeShong said the company “hires licensed, reputable construction and inspection companies to perform work that meets or exceeds state and local building codes.”

“The findings of faulty wiring contained in the report shows the high standards that MGM Resorts expects of those contractors were not upheld, which is very disturbing and disappointing,” she said. DeShong added that MGM has and will continue to address any issues that do not meet state and local building codes.

Hijazi said “disciplinary actions” are being taken against the electrical contractor and the third-party inspector who approved the work, but he declined to elaborate on those actions.

The engineer’s findings confirmed a preliminary assessment obtained by The Washington Post that showed powering for the lights on the metal handrail was improperly installed and used the wrong type of wiring and that the railing was installed at a shallow depth, leading to movements that frayed protective coatings and brought bared wiring into contact with the metal railing.

A mechanism known as an LED driver — designed to step down 120 volts to 12 volts for the lighting on the underside of the handrail — likely failed two days before the girl swung on the handrail, the independent report found. The girl was shocked with 120 volts — 10 times the amount that should have been flowing to the lights on the railing. She remains hospitalized.

Hijazi said the incident underscores the need to “revisit the third-party inspection process,” which the county has not revised since 2001. The county has a certification process for third-party inspectors used on many large projects. The main staff member with the county’s permitting department who oversaw the third-party inspectors was “an administrator and quality assurance person,” Hijazi said.

Officials have not publicly named either the third-party inspector or the electrical company responsible for the faulty wiring at the plaza.

No charges or violation citations have been filed against anyone or any company.

A third-party electrical inspector at MGM said he accepted work that he did not think complied with code because he felt pressure from other construction entities, according to a court document reviewed by The Washington Post that did not name which entities or have more details.

“Everybody knew there was an opening date,” Hijazi said. “But no one was under pressure.”

The headline on this story has been clarified to state that the investigation is at the MGM National Harbor site.

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