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Idaho Transportation Department Speaks For First Time On Oversight Investigation

Mike Ensor

Lawmakers who oversee the state’s budget grilled the Idaho Transportation Department Friday morning over an investigation that found the agency paid contractors bonuses for possibly poor paving work two years ago after technicians altered quality assurance test results.

The report by the Idaho Statesman published last week documented dozens or hundreds of test alterations spread among four projects completed in 2018.

Contractors were awarded $190,000 in bonuses for these asphalt results, some of which were classified as “failing or near failing material” and that “reject level material is being left on public roads,” according to an internal ITD document obtained by the Statesman. The agency warned the newspaper about drawing that conclusion about the quality of the asphalt.

The report points out that some of the lab technicians checking the quality of the pavement are hired by the same contractors they’re supposed to be monitoring. Other techs are employed by the state, though much of the work is contracted to the private sector.

“I would question the independence when you have somebody that has two masters – both the contractor and the state – and maybe that is where I would classify the breakdown happened,” Sen. Jeff Agenbroad (R-Nampa), said Friday.

But ITD Chief Deputy Director Scott Stokes rejected that characterization.

“I don’t necessarily view this as a breakdown…I would view it actually more of a success that the state oversight has caught some things that made us very uneasy,” Stokes said.

After initially agreeing to talk to the Idaho Statesman, ITD refused multiple requests for a fact-checking interview with an expert familiar with the records. This is the first time since the story was published that the agency has publicly commented.

The Office of the Inspector General within the Federal Highway Administration is investigating the matter.

Stokes urged lawmakers to wait for the results of that investigation before making up their minds. “I think it’s very difficult to conclude based on what you’ve seen in the media and what we know…if there’s someone at fault or not.”

Earlier in the hearing, Stokes was asked whether these discrepancies had any connections to the $488 million in construction dollars ITD requested for the upcoming fiscal year.

“I’m not aware of any relation that this would have to our budget,” he said. “We have high confidence in the work that we do in our highways and bridges.”

Another question raised by Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise) was whether the agency had the resources to properly serve as an overseer and ensure that taxpayer money is properly spent.

Over the past 10 years, Stokes mentioned 185 employee positions have been eliminated within ITD. Still, he has “complete confidence” in staff members and their ability to handle these projects – whether in-house or through contractors.

“We don’t like to attempt to staff the department at whatever that peak workload would be because then there would be the dips and we would have employees that would not be operating very efficiently.”

Stokes said projects that are out for bid right now will be subject to more state testing than in the past, but he didn’t expand on how that would be accomplished.

Clarification: This story originally stated that the Idaho Transportation Department refused multiple requests for interviews from the Idaho Statesman. Instead, the agency refused requests to meet with a technical expert familiar with the records for a fact-checking interview. The story has been updated to reflect that change.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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