Conventional wisdom tells us that Oregon's practice of allowing studded tires on its roadways is the reason that our streets are in such sorry shape. And there's a good amount of scientific evidence that says that particular piece of conventional wisdom is right on. One estimate put the annual bill for studded tire damage on Oregon roads at $11 million.
There is another theory that has circulated among certain circles, one that I came across early on in my reporting career here in Central Oregon that has never been substantiated - at least to my knowledge. This theory, really more a rumor, held that some of the damage to our roads could be chalked up to lousy materials.
But even those who never heard whisper of an "asphalt conspiracy" would have been interested to hear what a former Oregon Department of Transportation employee had to say during a sparsely attended hearing in Bend last week. Michael Ray Perry told an administrative law judge that he personally tested hundreds of road projects that failed to meet state standards, some of which have already started to fall apart. Moreover, Perry said supervisors routinely dismissed his findings in an effort to keep projects steaming along.
A third generation ODOT employee who worked his way up from a striping crew to a quality assurance technician in Region 4, Perry spent nearly 25 years at the agency before he was fired last fall. Perry says the firing was retribution for his attempts to take public what he knew about ODOT's road projects and the agency's systematic failure to correct the problems. Managers who testified at the hearing said the agency investigated Perry's claims and found them to be without merit and that he was fired for failing to show up to work.
"I couldn't ever corroborate what Ray had come up with," said Brian Burleigh, a human resources officer with ODOT's Region 4.
"It just didn't pan out."
Perry said he was punished for doing his job and that he was ultimately fired for being a whistleblower.
Perry's allegations, which emerged during his worker's compensation hearing just across the street from ODOT's offices where he used to work, are far ranging and include deliberate fraud to a pattern of rubberstamping sub-standard work in the field. The hearing included testimony from witnesses for Perry and ODOT with cross examination by lawyers for both that spanned two days and covered 15 years of Perry's work as a quality assurance tech. It also produced a dozen of pages of technical documents that Perry says back up his claims of malfeasance by supervisors and project managers at the agency.
ODOT Spokesman Peter Murphy characterized Perry's allegations as a human resources issue and declined to comment the case. However, Murphy provided a letter from the Secretary of States Audit Division clearing the agency of any alleged wrong doing related to a claim brought forth by Perry in 2006.
If Ray Perry is delusional, he's fooled more than just himself. Several high powered parties have taken a behind the scenes interest in Perry's claims. One of the first witnesses called by Perry's counsel, Phillip Emerson, was Ben Westlund, the state senator from Tumalo and candidate for state treasurer.
Westlund said he was first contacted by Perry in late 2005 and met the then ODOT employee at Shari's in Bend to discuss information that Perry had about the agency. Based on his testimony, Westlund has been in semi-regular contact with Perry since that time, steering Perry to the Secretary of State's Audits Division and, later, the Oregon Department of Justice.
As a quality control officer who acted as a liaison between contractors and ODOT project managers, Perry had one of the most difficult jobs in state government, said Westlund. More importantly, he wasn't allowed to do that job, Westlund said.
He went on to say that Perry has provided him with documentation that Westlund believes corroborates his claims.
"I do believe the claims Mr. Perry made are not only true but have far reaching implications about how ODOT currently conducts its business and must change in the future," he said.
When told that Sen. Westlund had testified on Perry's behalf, ODOT spokesman Murphy referred to Westlund as "just another person."
According to Perry, the allegations are about more than just potholes. Perry said one of his first projects after ODOT restructured the Quality Assurance program in the mid 90s was the Rex Barber Bridge on Hwy 97, which spans the Crooked River Canyon north of Redmond. According to Perry the contractors failed to meet road specifications for pavement on both the north and south approaches to the bridge. The project also failed to meet minimum specs for the concrete on the bridge itself.
As a result, said Perry, the concrete is starting to crack on the bridge.
Perry said he raised these concerns to ODOT's project manager but that he was brushed aside in order to keep the project on schedule and under budget, priorities which he said, regularly take precedent over quality on the projects he worked on over the past decade.
"That was basically the beginning of me figuring out that there was a problem with the system (of checks and balances). And I was hoping it was an isolated incident."
Instead, Perry said it was the first of many such incidents in which he spotted a problem and was overruled or ignored.
The upshot, said Perry, is that contractors have more leeway than they should on projects and very little accountability.
State regulators aren't the only ones interested in Perry's claim, according to the testimony given at the hearing. Westlund and ODOT employees testified that the FBI, which would have jurisdiction for a criminal prosecution because of the use of federal dollars in state highway projects, is currently looking into Perry's allegations. Speaking after the hearing, Perry confirmed that he has spoken to the FBI, but said he has been counseled against expounding.
Testimony showed that Perry brought some of his concerns forward internally to his own supervisor, Cole Mullis, who ran the agency's quality assurance program out of Salem.
Mullis, who testified by phone last Thursday, described Perry as an "excellent" employee from a technical standpoint. However, Mullis described Perry as having problems with his communication and interpersonal skills, especially in regard to his coworkers - one of whom Perry filed a formal complaint about in early 2006. Perry alleged that his coworker had falsified paperwork related to the testing and calibration of a tool used to measure the density of road construction materials.
Documents produced in court show that the department investigated Perry's claim of fraud. While the department found "mistakes" by Perry's co-worker, it cleared him of any intentional wrongdoing, Mullis said. The finding was upheld by the Secretary of State's audit division investigation.
And in the end it was Perry who was disciplined for bringing the claim forward under what supervisors said were false pretenses. Perry disputes that account but was given a formal reprimand and, in an unusual step, according to his own managers, had his pay docked - the most severe discipline meted out by ODOT short of termination.
Perry said the stress from incidents like this forced him to leave work on a doctor's orders last fall. Perry said he was fired before he was cleared to return.
Perry said after the hearing that the allegations brought forward are just the tip of the iceberg and said he has saved documents to verify his claims of mismanagement and fraud by his former employer.
In the meantime, the Oregon Worker's Compensation Division will weigh whether ODOT is liable for the stress that Perry says cost him his three-decade career at ODOT.
The administrative law judge has 30 days to decide the case after final arguments are submitted sometime later this year.