Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Flashback: A Tiny Blip, a Non-Scandal Blown Up to Mammoth Proportions. A Whole Lot of Technical Stuff About Highway Construction.

[More from fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Very late that evening, as I again burst into the General Marshall’s office, he was on the phone with his guy Swanberg in Hinckley and the U. S. Bureau of Public Roads official. This was before the era of “speaker phones” and there was no effort to get me to listen in on another extension because as a former brigadier general, Jim Marshall was autocratic about his getting the information first from his aides and then relaying it to others. A handful of state highway department executives were at the meeting: Swanberg and William Ekern, deputy chief engineer and John Youngquist, the department’s chief engineer all from St. Paul; and W.W. Fryhofer of the U. S. Bureau of Public Roads and two federal colleagues. He hung up the phone after receiving the report of so-called “scandal” from his deputy meeting with the Bureau of Public Roads people in northwestern Hinckley. He laughed.

“This is the so-called scandal that Humphrey has for us,” he said. “It’s nothing. Listen to this. The suspicion is that you guys in the governor’s office put the pressure on me to finish a section of Interstate 35 near Hinckley so Andersen could dedicate it for the campaign. That, of course, as all who know me understands is ridiculous.”

Absolutely since old curmudgeon didn’t accept political pressure and if he had received any he would likely slow-up rather than speed-up the construction so as to show who’s boss. And we didn’t place high priority on unveiling highway projects anyhow since as Lieutenant Governor, Rolvaag could also attend if he had a mind to—and we weren’t in the business of giving him press attention.

Reader advisory: The following details on highway construction may be terminally boring—but necessary to understand the issue.

We spoke for a long time. Sorry but the following contains far, far more details about highway construction in 1962 than anyone but a highway engineer needs to know—but this is from my notes.

Marshall continued: “As you know, the feds pay 90 percent of the highway construction upon completion. Now here’s the story: A construction crewman named Bob O’Donnell was assigned to tedious work at a big bituminous plant that was producing blacktop for the shoulders of the completed highway. He’s working on a four-lane divided highway ih Pine county stretched from the junction of trunk highway 23 to north of Sandstone, ending at Askov. It’s quite a highway. Nine-inch-thick reinforced concrete with roadways 24 feet wide in each direction, flanked by 10-foot-wide bituminous shoulders on the outside, it’s the longest stretch of interstate in Minnesota that we have so far.

“The plant mixed blacktop at the rate of 20 tons an hour. Every so often O’Donnell was required to run a test. Last September 19 he took a routine test on material to be used for an on-ramp to the highway. It involved filling a 2-1/2 gallon pail of crushed gravel and dumping it on a next of sieves and shaking the sieves. The material remaining on the tray was to be weighed and calculated. At 10 a.m. on September 19 he found the aggregate was too coarse—ranging from a half of one percent to one percent too coarse. So he took additional tests.

“All told eight tests were taken. Six tests failed; two didn’t. Meaning they didn’t attain the hairline minimum provided in the specs. According to the regs, the readings O’Donnell had should have been figured to the nearest whole percentage. He didn’t do that which would have made the tests within specs. On his testing, O’Donnell took notes. He informed his boss, the bituminous plant inspector. The inspector informed the project engineer, John Youngquist. Youngquist understood the specs were met by rounding off the percentages but just to be sure he phoned the contractor and told him the aggregate had to be improved. That’s the usual stuff we give contractors to keep them on their toes. He telephoned our central office and asked for a bituminous inspector to go to the site the next day and give him a judgment on the matter. And he entered the report of the tests—six failed, two passed before rounding off to the nearest whole percentage—on his official diary which is a public record of the construction project. O’Donnell’s boss did the same.

“Now follow this closely. O’Donnell passed by a wastebasket later and saw his notes stuffed in it. He didn’t rescue the notes from the basket. He decided his warning was being ignored. It wasn’t because the others had taken notes and filed reports, you understand? They have the reports. O’Donnell figured his report was being scotched. Then a guy he identifies as a Mr. Gordon came to the site. He thought it was Douglas Gordon, the department’s bituminous engineer—but he was wrong. The guy was named Holt, a young graduate engineer, one of our best—I can swear by him since I promoted him—second in command of our bituminous section who was there for an on-the-spot survey.

“O’Donnell says that the engineer talked to his boss privately and his boss came to him and told O’Donnell he was `too honest’ that the production would continue. Stupid comment but in view of the percentage round-off it had validity to this extent: we were within tolerance in view of regs that make tolerance for that kind of thing. I have the statistics right here: bituminous failures on the 5/8-inch screen were 94 percent and 94.5 percent instead of the specified 95 to 100 percent. Perfectly okay according to national recommendations that I’ll show you in a minute. His boss didn’t tell him we had warned the contractor and had reported the figures up the line. This `too honest’ crack was either a gaffe by us when we meant to say `too scrupulous’ or `too persnickety’. Incidentally our guy denies he said `too honest.’ Honesty isn’t a factor here; it’s tolerance. I believe our guy because use of the word honesty on tolerance is not engineering talk or highway talk for that matter.

“So what you have is a kid working on a summer highway detail with no engineering knowledge, just a construction worker, who cites six failed tests out of eight who was overruled by a graduate engineer. The kid sees his records in the wastebasket and he draws the conclusion that the report was scotched when he doesn’t know it was reported upstairs. Somebody says he’s `too honest’. He gets burned up—that there’s a conspiracy afoot and that I—General Marshall—am in such a hurry to reelect the governor that I order the project to advance.

“ He also says that the weather was too cold for pouring—that it was sub-freezing—that the mix that comes when it’s poured in sub-freezing weather on frozen ground is substandard. But I checked and the weather was not sub-freezing up there on September 19. I have the temperature right here: in the high 40s. But, the Democrats say, we were hurried so much by the political calendar for Andersen’s ribbon-cutting that we poured anyhow. Also that we were so hurried that we peeled off salvaged blacktop material from an old highway and used it as a base for the new concrete: more proof to their mind that it was rushed. All of this is specious: the weather not freezing or sub-freezing, the push for political reasons of ribbon-cutting and the use of salvaged blacktop.

“I gave you the answer to the sub-freezing charge and ’ll give you the answers to the used blacktop allegations in a minute. But to follow through with the timetable: O’Donnell says he went to a neutral party to get some corrective action. He went to a neutral party, all right—the DFL. Now I’ve got something for you to chew on. His brother, Michael, is a high DFL operative in the Rolvaag campaign. So he goes to his brother. It goes up the chain of command in Rolvaag headquarters to one Sydney Berde—pronounced `birdie’: do you know who that is?”

I said: I do. He’s a former top assistant state attorney general to Mondale who took a leave of absence to serve as Rolvaag’s campaign manager. This kid O’Donnell has some very important political connections.

“I guess so,” said General Marshall. “So he goes to his brother who goes to the campaign manager Berde. Berde calls an administrative assistant to Congressman Blatnik in Washington—Blatnik from the area is high up on the public works committee.”

High up is right. He’s chairman of public works.

“Terrific from their point of view. Blatnik’s guy calls the Bureau of Public Roads and alerts them to the fact that something funny’s going on with our highway construction for political road dedication purposes. Blatnik’s guy also calls Gene Foley whoever he is…”

Eugene Foley was the Democrat who opposed Quie for Congress and was twice beaten by us. He was made deputy under-secretary of commerce under Kennedy and the Commerce Department held jurisdiction over the Bureau of Public Roads.

“Blatnik who happens to be in Duluth goes to Hinckley. They all question this Bob O’Donnell in the basement room of the old American Legion hall in Hinckley. They think they have a case for hollering corruption. Especially with the so-called low tolerances. But they don’t. We answer it,” said General Marshall, “with this”—and he tossed a huge book of statistics over the desk to me.

“That shows that the national test made for such construction, made by the U. S. Highway Research Board, an adjunct of the National Academy of Sciences, was perfected by a stretch of highway built for experimental purposes outside of Ottawa, Illinois. The feds built that model highway last year with all the care that your mother would in baking a cake. A perfect stretch of highway. On this test highway, 1,146 measurements were made to determine thickness. Two and 7/10ths percent were below minimum thickness, three and five-tenths percent showed the concrete above the proscribed thickness. The ingredients were poured ultra-carefully, far more carefully than ordinary road construction men would do. The ingredients were poured by graduate federal engineers.

“It was as good as the feds could construct and yet it showed road density something like Goldilocks’ porridge. One batch was a tad below minimum, the next batch a tad above minimum—but the overall was just right. And here is the conclusion stated by the feds themselves: It says `when we are talking about engineering judgments we are talking about tolerances. We are referring to the amount of variation from specified requirements which can be tolerated and still produce a highway economically and of good quality,’ You have tolerances that are acceptable to the feds, tolerances that have been checked by us up and down the line. So, Mr. Roeser, the scandal you feared is [scatological words for lies involving bull excrement.] Case closed. And you can use the authorized federal report with your press buddies to nail this thing shut.”

And as far as utilizing used blacktop is concerned?

“Standard operating procedure. We do it all the time or else costs would really go through the roof.”

I need precedents under Orville Freeman.

“And I have them—right here” he said as he tossed over a sheet of paper. “In 1955 under Freeman 30 miles of highway was paved using used blacktop as a base. In 1956 more than 20 miles. In 1957 more than 40 miles. In 1958…”

Save them.

“So, scandal closed,” he said.

I said nope. Not at all. The fuse is lit and can blow us up. I know the media and they won’t focus on the details, General. They’ll zero in on the possibility of federal suspension and the probability of state taxpayers taking on the whole load: minimal though it is. If Humphrey can get the Bureau of Public Roads merely to say they’re looking at it, it’s a ten-strike politically. Headlines will say Feds May Cut Matching Funds. He can storm as only Humphrey can that possibly the taxpayers of Minnesota will pay the whole thing because of Andersen’s rush to cut a highway ribbon. That’s the way last-minute charges like this works.

“I don’t get it,” he said. So I had to say it again.

Scandal closed from an engineering standpoint, I said, but not from a political. Humphrey can put the pressure on the Bureau of Public Roads to launch a so-called investigation that can prejudice the media even if the probe is discontinued after election. This stuff is so loaded with statistics the voters can’t digest it. But if Humphrey can announce that the federal 90 percent matching is held up and Minnesota taxpayers may have to foot the entire cost themselves—something nobody will know until after election—we’ll be in trouble. But thanks for the stuff and I’ll disseminate it.

General Marshal said: “Well I hate to say this, Roeser, but if you’re any damn good at all with the press you ought to be able to knock this down. I don’t know much about politics but you’re telling me after I proved this to you that they can still run with a so-called scandal that doesn’t exist?”

Right-0, General. We’ve got big trouble. I want you to collect your best engineers and have them stand by for a news conference tomorrow—also get a department publicist you can trust to synthesize the data you’ve given me so I can prepare it for the media. If we don’t nail it shut now it’s going to kill us. It looks like I’m going to be working all night on this thing.

When I got back to my office well after 1 a.m. my office was the only one open. My phone rang. It was Wanda and Michelson.

“To-mas,” she said, “ah you on top of eeet?”

To which I answered honestly—yes, factually. But I have no control over the Bureau of Public Roads. I have a sickening sensation that we will bore everybody with the technical answers but Humphrey still has the trump card.

“Truuuump card?”

As long as he can make the Bureau of Public Roads simply say that the investigation proceeds, we can’t do a thing about it except deny there’s anything wrong. And this can go on until after election. We could lose the election on this thing and be found innocent and vindicated after election.

Michelson who was listening in for the first time weighed in on our side.

“What can I do to stymie this thing?”

I said: I’ve got all the answers here. Put me on the tube tomorrow and then Marshall’s engineers. That’ll help. Beyond that, I don’t know. I’m hoping you hint very heavily that politics is behind this including misuse of the Bureau of Public Roads. The other news outlets seem to follow your lead because you’re the best political reporter in the state.

“I can do that, Tommy. I can’t write an editorial on this thing for the TV station. But I’ll see what I can do.”

Wanda came back on the phone. “He veel do ever’ting in his power, won’t you, Arthur?”

They hung up. Ah, the pure love of two adulterous people married to others who are involved in this, my uncomplicated life.

1 comment:

  1. Tom- This episode was neither too technical or boring. Actually, I don't know how it could have been told more clearly. Hubert was a crafty old bastard! We were living in Texas at that time, so I really don't remember what happened. Everything old is new again