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Crosstown Expressway Authority accuses contractor of fraud

TAMPA — The legal battle over the botched construction of elevated lanes on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway continues to escalate.

In April, PCL Civil Constructors filed a lawsuit saying it was still owed nearly $21.8 million on top of the $176.5 million it had been paid for building the lanes.

Now the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority has fired back. In a response filed on Tuesday to PCL's suit, the authority accuses the company of fraud, making intentional misrepresentations and knowingly overbilling the public.

Authority officials say PCL should repay the agency more than $27 million.

PCL had fallen behind on its work, the authority contends, and the sudden collapse of a support pier allowed the company to overbill the authority for repairs and turn a troubled project into a profitable one.

"We had a catastrophic event here, and quite frankly it appears that an opportunity presented itself not unlike price-gouging in a hurricane," authority general counsel Patrick Maguire said Thursday.

In a written response, PCL said it "absolutely and vehemently denies" the authority's "false aspersions." PCL said it worked closely with the authority to open the lanes as soon as safe and practicable after the pier collapsed.

The authority built the elevated lanes to move traffic between downtown Tampa and Brandon.

During construction, however, one of the 224 support piers unexpectedly sank more than 11 feet in April 2004. About 1,750 tons of concrete and metal collapsed, hurting two workers and creating a V-shaped crease in the elevated road deck.

Three months later, a second pier settled more than three-quarters of an inch.

Those problems added $92 million in repair costs to the project and delayed its opening by a year.

In its new pleadings, the expressway authority also took aim at Ralph Mervine, its former interim executive director.

The agency says Mervine had a conflict of interest because he, PCL and Jacobs Civil Inc., which reviewed PCL's change orders, all had business relationships with a high-speed rail company known as the Global Rail Consortium. But the agency said neither Mervine, PCL nor Jacobs disclosed the relationship.

If true, it wouldn't be the first time that Mervine's outside business interests became an issue for the authority. In 2006, Mervine resigned his $208,000-a-year job after facing questions about his connections to a gay erotic film production company in California.

On Thursday, Mervine said he had no conflict of interest and showed PCL no favoritism.

"Our total focus was to get this project restarted," he said.

The authority contended that Mervine was Global Rail's project manager, but Kathie Beck, Global's managing member, said he never was an employee of Global Rail.

Instead, she said Mervine worked for a separate company that was the project manager for Global Rail's proposed high-speed rail project.

Mervine left that company before he went to work for the authority, he and Beck said. He also noted that by the time the authority appointed him director, Florida voters had repealed a constitutional amendment that led the state to seek proposals from Global Rail and other high-speed rail companies.

"There were no relationships that carried forward that affected anything I did," Mervine said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Crosstown Expressway Authority accuses contractor of fraud 05/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:19pm]
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