A Georgia state employee could face criminal charges after admitting that he faked dozens of inspection reports for bridges that he never inspected, state officials said.
"We're confident that these bridges are safe, though not as confident as we were two or three weeks ago," said David Spear, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Transportation. "But all of these bridges were inspected two years ago, and we're checking them all now."
The fake inspections came to light after a review of paperwork showed a two-man team working at an impossible rate to meet an end-of-the-year deadline for inspections. In one case they claimed to have inspected 18 bridges a day, when 12 a week would have been the norm.
The supervisor of the crew, David Simmons, confessed that he and his partner falsified 54 inspection reports for bridges in metro Atlanta, Spear said. Eleven of those were vulnerable bridges known as fracture-critical, meaning one failure could cause the bridge to fall.
Simmons, an employee for 29 years, was told that he would be fired, but filed for retirement instead. He could not be reached for an interview.
His partner, Gerald Kelsey, did not admit to faking inspections, but didn't claim to have inspected the bridges either, officials said. He resigned his position, telling officials that the crew fell behind when Simmons took a lot of time off. Kelsey told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was a "victim of circumstances."
Georgia was one of only four states to have perfect records for on-time bridge inspections in an investigative report published last week by msnbc.com. That report, following up on the fatal bridge collapse in Minneapolis in August, was based on inspections through 2006; so far, the admission by Simmons deals only with inspections in 2007, officials said, though they are checking records for the previous year.
"Obviously, there should never be an inspection late," Spear said. "But the pressure clearly was heightened by the end-of-the-year deadline coming up, and by the public attention that bridges have gotten since Minneapolis."
The false reports were red-flagged in late December by quality-assurance workers in the Transportation Department, Spear said. They noticed that many of the photos of bridges were time-stamped on the same date, too many to have been inspected. It appears that one or both of the inspectors was visiting the bridges, taking photos and then leaving.
The men were confronted on Jan. 22, and Simmons admitted that the reports were faked after the crew fell behind, Spear said. On the 24th, they were placed on administrative leave and were told they would probably be fired. On the 25th, Simmons, who had tenure as a longtime state employee, requested to retire. On the 30th, Kelsey, who did not have tenure, resigned.
The department says it plans to contest Simmons' retirement, and to pursue criminal charges. No federal document was falsified, Spear said, because the false reports had not yet been sent to the Federal Highway Administration.
"If there is any indication that there has been any criminal offense, we will absolutely pursue it," Spear said. "That decision is up to the attorney general's office."
One of 11 crews in the state, the men were responsible for inspecting 1,322 bridges over a two-year period, or about 13 a week. "It's an aggressive schedule, no doubt," Spear said, "but some of those are going to be culverts, which can be done quickly."
As in most states, bridge inspectors are not required to be licensed as professional engineers. Simmons and Kelsey were certified as bridge inspectors, meaning they had passed a federal course. The state says it will ask the Federal Highway Administration to revoke their certification.
Other inspectors will check the 54 bridges that Simmons admitted not inspecting, along with 68 other bridges that officials weren't certain had been checked after reviewing the paperwork. And inspectors will check the 278 bridges that the team still had on their list to examine.
Spear said the state has tried to be as forthcoming as possible, informing the Federal Highway Administration on Jan. 30, and calling local newspapers this week to announce the discovery.
"We are at least gratified that we detected it," Spear said. "Of course, this should never have happened. We're going to beef up some internal procedures, to add some people to quality assurance, and do more training for inspectors as well.
"We called in the other inspection teams and told them, 'If you have anything to tell us, you'd better tell us now.'"