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A Hummel Report Investigation

Making It Go Away

Four years ago Shire Corporation sued the state, claiming the Rhode Island Department of Transportation was making a concerted effort to freeze the Cranston-based construction company out of state-awarded projects. Several months ago, the state quietly settled the suit - with taxpayers shelling out $2 million to make the litigation go away. This week Jim Hummel asks D.O.T. Director Michael Lewis: why?


Delays in the construction of the Barrington Bridge were the most public display of bad blood between the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and the contractor for the project, Shire Corporation of Cranston.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg, according to a lawsuit Shire filed against the state in 2009. The suit claimed D.O.T had an ongoing vendetta against Shire and had made a concerted effort to freeze the company out of future state projects - including a bid to replace of the Union Avenue Bridge back in 2005.
The lawsuit, in its fourth year, had already cost taxpayers at least a million and a half dollars in legal fees. So late last year, the state quietly settled - shelling out another $2 million in taxpayers dollars to make it all go away. When we asked about it more than a year ago, D.O.T.'s Michael Lewis declined to talk about the suit, the roots of which began long before he became director.
Last week, Lewis answered our questions.
Lewis: ``In any kind of litigation there's risk. We think the risk was low, but between the Department of Administration and the Department of Transportation Administration and legal offices determined that was in the state's best interests to settle that out - for the value that it was and put that chapter behind the state.''
For the better part of a decade, Shire Corporation had been the public punching bag for problems on the Barrington Bridge project, as higher-ups in the D.O.T. blamed the contractor for delays and cost overruns.
But we learned last year that a Department of Administration official, called in to referee, put the blame for delays squarely in D.O.T.'s lap - and ordered it to pay Shire $5.3 million in taxpayer money. D.O.T. did not admit liability - and Shire's president Tom Gammino, in an interview last year with The Hummel Report, said the order angered some of the higher-ups in DOT, prompting them to go on the warpath against Shire, which regularly bid on large state construction projects.
The heart of the 2009 lawsuit filed against D.O.T., and eight people in their state positions, says the state delayed awarding the Union Avenue project to Shire - because of the ongoing dispute between D.O.T and the company - even though Shire was the low bidder.
Hummel: ``It's taxpayer money and when you're crying poverty, then to have to pay a $2 million judgment, what do you say to the taxpayer about that?''

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