Details of an investigation conducted by Metro’s Office of Inspector General four years ago into allegations of falsified inspection reports reveal a long-running pattern of abuses of the kind that led to massive firings last year.
The office’s findings, laid out in a September 2015 memo, determined that inspectors had been taking a number of shortcuts, sometimes with a manager’s blessing, when examining bridges, tunnels and platforms for signs of disrepair. These included copying language from prior years’ inspection reports and pasting them into new ones. Inspectors also used archived photos to falsely document current conditions. In some cases, inspectors didn’t perform inspections at all or did so in perfunctory fashion, the report says.
In one instance, investigators found an inspector who was supposed to examine an elevated structure using a bucket lift – which would also require traffic control to halt trains at that spot – instead viewed the structure from below with a pair of binoculars. The inspector then filled out the report using the exact same measurements and language copied from previous years’ reports and used archived photos.
The IG’s partially redacted report was not publicly released at the time, but was obtained through a public records request. Helen Lew, the former Inspector General who oversaw the investigation, declined to comment on the probe or explain why her office’s findings weren’t made public at the time.
Lew’s office undertook its investigation after an unidentified employee came forward in 2013, alerting it of a longstanding practice of recycling old material into new inspection reports. The whistleblower provided the names of inspectors who had been falsifying the documents, according to the Inspector General’s report. As part of the investigation, the office interviewed several inspectors and examined more than 100 inspection reports from 2008 to 2015.
Among the lapses found: an aerial structure examined in 2008 and 2009 and given a numerical rating of “4” — which meant that, on a scale from 1 to 9, the structure was in an advanced state of deterioration – was given a rating of “5” in 2011, by an inspector who also used a picture from 2008 to document its condition. Anything ranked 5 or lower was also supposed to be referred to maintenance teams for repairs, but the unidentified inspector told investigators that this defect and others that entailed expensive repairs were often put on the backburner.
In 2013, an inspector examined a box girder – which is a steel beam with a hollow rectangular cross section used in bridges and other aerial structures – and rated its condition a “3,” the same rating it had received two years previously. The rating – which means the feature is in “serious” condition – should also have triggered an alert to maintenance, but it didn’t. This inspector – with a supervisor’s approval – also documented the flaws using an archived picture, in violation of procedures adopted by the agency in 2012, the report says.
The inspections varied because, in addition to outright falsifications, the Inspector General found that the Office of Rail Track and Structures, which is responsible for track maintenance, had no manual outlining standard procedures for inspections. In response, the agency told the Inspector General’s office that one was under development.
Some inspectors, for example, would not write up the notes of their inspections until six months after the inspection was performed. The reason, an inspector told investigators, was because the unit was so busy trying to keep up with U.S. Department of Transportation inspection requirements. The Inspector General’s report urged the agency to take steps to ensure that inspections were properly carried out and tracked using computer technology.
In their October 2015 response, Metro’s top engineers assured the Inspector General that steps had been taken to address concerns raised by the investigation and similar concerns documented by the Federal Transit Administration, which had assumed safety oversight of Metro’s rail operation. The agency also hired a senior program manager to develop a program for conducting inspections. But no disciplinary action was taken against any employees following the Inspector General’s report, and none was recommended, according to the October 2015 memo from the Office of Chief Engineering, Infrastructure.
Yet, the 2015 IG findings prefigured the sort of lapses that led Metro’s management to fire a third of its track inspections department beginning late last year – and they raise questions about why more wasn’t done to ensure that the job was done properly after the abuses came to light.
Some of the fired track inspection employees have since sued Metro, claiming they they were wrongfully terminated and accusing the agency of racial discrimination. Their union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, has also accused Metro’s management of using the fired workers as scapegoats.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said that as a general policy, the IG’s office does not disclose information about investigations. However, she said that Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington, who took over for Lew earlier this year, has amended the policy.
“In an effort to make our investigations more transparent, OIG is changing existing policy and will release information on closed investigations after counsel has reviewed and redacted privacy information and other sensitive information,” Cherrington said through the spokeswoman. “We are now including investigative summaries in our semi-annual reports to the Board of Directors.”
Ly said that as result of the findings by the FTA and the Inspector General, Metro implemented a number of changes, including writing inspection manuals and implementing uniform guidelines for writing inspection reports and reporting structural defects to maintenance.
She also cited an internal report prepared by Metro’s quality control unit – which was delivered to senior managers in June and posted to the agency’s website – that says a number of improvements have been made to address longstanding problems with the inspections team, including a new automated system known as Maximo for flagging, documenting and tracking flaws that are in need of repair.
“Most importantly, [the quality control team] found no evidence of safety concerns and the recommendations largely involve improvements to processes and procedures,” Ly said in an email.
Yet, as my colleague Martine Powers documented here, the agency’s efforts to improve the quality of inspections have been hampered by daily time constraints, technological glitches and self-imposed safety regulations.
Perhaps the most troubling takeaway from the years-old Inspector General’s report is that it’s yet another in many reports, wake-up calls, and warnings that Metro managers have received over the years — and apparently failed to take action on. Nothing in the official two-page response by Metro’s brass to the Inspector General in 2015 suggests that the agency thought such disturbing allegations would be worth a broader view of the subway’s inspection practices.
All together, it’s the sort of reading makes you wonder whether Metro’s employees are up to the job of running a safety-first rail line – and whether even someone who’s obviously aware of such problems, such as General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, will succeed where others have failed.
You can read the Inspector General’s Report of Investigation here:
The response from Metro is here:
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