US: Billionaire's behemoth firm no stranger to controversy

Two days after the fatal collapse of a Big Dig tunnel, investigators and an angry public are turning their sights on the project manager, Bechtel Group of San Francisco.

And for the secretive, politically-wired, family-controlled company, it won't be the first time in an uncomfortable spotlight.

"Failures of project management . . . neglect of safety and quality assurance . . . uncontrollable costs."

That's not what a congressman said about the Big Dig.

It's what Rep. David Hobson, a Republican from Ohio, said about the toxic waste treatment center being built in Hanford, Wash.

What's this got to do with the Central Artery?

Guess the name of the contractor.

It was supposed to be finished by 2011. Now, it's 2017. Oh, and the $4.3 billion initial budget?

Try $11.3 billion.

Bechtel isn't new to controversy.

There was the $154 million no-bid federal contract to provide trailer homes for the homeless after Hurricane Katrina. The government reportedly nixed one-third of that after an audit accused Bechtel of trying to bill twice for the same work, though Bechtel denied that.

There's the $680 million-plus reconstruction work it landed in Iraq shortly after the invasion. Three subcontractors it hired ended up paying $86 million in fines for various problems.

And don't forget the $110,000 it paid not long ago to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to settle alleged safety and environmental violations.

For the record: Bechtel strenuously insists it's innocent in the above cases.
What isn't open to dispute is that this company gets the big contracts.

Bechtel was a major contributor to George Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. Former cabinet secretary George Schulz was once president.

But of course this is business, not just politics. Bechtel gives generously to the Democrats, too.

In 2000 and 2002 alone Bechtel gave more than $750,000 in "soft" money donations to federal candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.

Not for nothing is Riley Bechtel, the billionaire chairman and CEO, a member of the Bohemian Club.

That's a summer boys' camp for rich and powerful old boys like Henry Kissinger, Bill Buckley, Bush 41, and the like.

Bechtel still boasts about building the Hoover Dam. But that was under an earlier generation of the Bechtel family.

Warren Bechtel, who founded the company in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake 100 years ago, was an engineer and a business genius.

Riley Bechtel, his 54-year old successor?

Put it this way. His family helped build Stanford University's Bechtel International Center and Bechtel Conference Center.

But when it came time to get into college, little Riley ended up at . . . the University of California at Davis.

On the company Web site, Riley brags that he is an honorary fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers and an honorary lifetime member of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

You'd like to think the man ultimately responsible for managing the Big Dig and other major engineering projects was an engineer, wouldn't you. At college he majored in psychology and . . . politics.

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  • 106 Money & Politics

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