Special Reports

Auditor wants accounting of payments for new bridge

State Auditor Brian Sonntag has criticized transportation officials for their haste in paying $40 million to the original developer of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge.

Sonntag slapped the state Department of Transportation for paying the money to United Infrastructure Washington before the department even knew how much the company was owed. Moreover, the department still doesn't know whether the bridge developer was entitled to all of the money.

The criticism appears in the 2003 Statewide Accountability Report, a compilation of audits that Sonntag's office conducted for 2003 and parts of 2002. The report was released Wednesday.

Sonntag's auditors are not questioning the $10 million "development fee" the department paid United Infrastructure. But they do want a more thorough accounting of what the state got for the remaining $30 million it paid to the developer and its subcontractors.

John Conrad, the department's assistant secretary, said the agency has spent more than a year having its own auditors document the payments and hopes to conclude its accounting by early June. However, the agency doesn't expect to have receipts for the entire $30 million because a small portion of that payment was a negotiated settlement with a subcontractor, he said.

That subcontractor, Goldman Sachs, originally was going to arrange financing for what has become an $849 million project to build a second bridge, reconfigure the existing bridge and widen parts of Highway 16. However, in 2002 the Legislature decided to borrow the money itself instead of paying United Infrastructure to arrange financing.

As a result, United Infrastructure, once a subsidiary of Bechtel Enterprises, was out of the picture. However, construction of the twin-bridge project now is being done by another Bechtel subsidiary, Tacoma Narrows Constructors.

The new bridge is expected to open in 2007.

Sonntag's office also criticized the Department of Transportation in 2002 for relying on an accounting from a firm hired by United Infrastructure to determine how much the developer should be reimbursed.

In 2003, the department started sending its own auditors to verify the expenses of the developer's subcontractor for which the state was providing reimbursement, Conrad said.

Among other findings in the annual report:

•The state Department of Social and Health Services improperly used federal funds to pay for nonemergency medical treatment for illegal or undocumented immigrants.

Federal law permits the use of that money only for emergencies. However, Sonntag's auditors found evidence that the state Medical Assistance Administration was using federal money to pay for massages, dental fillings, routine eye exams, eyeglasses, contact lenses, breast pumps, dentures and contraceptive devices.

Those examples came from a sample of 169 of 9,717 undocumented immigrant patients. Auditors questioned nearly $1.4 million in expenditures.

•Department of Social and Health Services workers routinely fail to verify the Social Security numbers of Medicaid and Medical Assistance clients, resulting in improper payments to people committing fraud. In some instances, patients used the Social Security numbers of dead people.

The agency said it would start making daily checks to verify identities instead of monthly checks.

•The Division of Child Care and Early Learning does not do adequate criminal background checks on people who run day care centers, or on relatives who live in the same home and come into close contact with children.

If a person says he or she has lived in Washington for three years or longer, DSHS doesn't take fingerprints for a more thorough check, according to auditors. Child care workers can easily lie about how long they have lived here because agency workers appear to be taking the word of applicants without verifying residency.

The agency said it doesn't have the budget to be more thorough.

•The state Department of Community Trade and Economic Development did not follow bidding regulations when it awarded a $443,500 contract to an Oregon company for 25 bunkhouses. The agency's Farmworker Housing Coordinator appeared to give preferential treatment and information to the Oregon company that it didn't give to other bidders.

There were cost overruns and the company went bankrupt.

The agency said the staffer involved in the purchase of the bunkhouses for the temporary farmworker housing camp near Wenatchee left state employment in May 2002 and the supervisor for the program left in April 2003.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436