It was a classic ethical question. Highlight a mistake and delay an important project, or try to cover it up?
Montana native Kip Harris, a supervisor for Sletten Construction, was faced with that sort of dilemma working on the Dover Bridge on Highway 2 in Sandpoint.
Before Harris got involved, the bridge, originally constructed way back in 1937, had already achieved a kind of sketchy infamy. It had become a traffic bottleneck. It had won the ignoble honor of making Popular Mechanics’ 2008 list of “10 Pieces of U.S. Infrastructure We Must Fix Now,” describing how a piece of the bridge was found hanging only by its rebar.
But then came the 2009 federal stimulus, offering $21.6 million to replace it with a five-lane steel bridge.
Montana’s Sletten Construction won the bid, and Harris was the lead superintendent on the project. For the pier caps — the structures supporting the weight of the bridge — long metal anchor bolts were placed first, and concrete was poured around them. But when workers tried to screw the nuts onto the bolts of one pier, it didn’t work. The bolts weren’t long enough. Harris could have told his supervisors, but according to court documents, he was under pressure to finish up quickly.
“He was concerned about his job,” says Jim Siebe, Harris’ defense attorney. The girders for the bridge were about to arrive, and the railroad would charge a considerable daily fee if they weren’t unloaded.
Instead, in the winter of 2011, Harris turned to paint and superglue. He told workers to thread the nut through a tiny cut piece of bolt, superglue it to the anchor bolts, and then paint the ends to disguise the cut. This wasn’t the sort of cover-up that could cause the whole bridge to come tumbling down, he figured, and he could always go back and fix it once the concrete had set.
When an inspector later discovered a few short bolts, Harris knocked away the other glued bolts for the next day’s inspection. But while driving home, he suddenly turned around and decided to cover it up again, this time using tack welding to prevent the bolts from being knocked off.
“It was stupid, it was a bad decision,” Siebe says. The welding didn’t work, the cover-up was obvious, and Harris was scared. He was charged with a felony for “making false statements” with the fraudulent bolts and lost his job. “It’s been hell,” Siebe says.
On Feb. 19, Harris was fined $750 and received three years of probation. For the period of his probation, he can’t get a passport, drink alcohol or appear at bars.
He’s barred from working on federal highway projects. And perhaps most humiliating, unless his lawyer finds an alternative, he has to give a presentation to his local middle school and high school on what he did, and why he did it.