New Jersey Emission Program Called Boondoggle

Critics say program benefits politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and the corporation that was the sole bidder for the work.

Published: 18-Mar-2002

TRENTON, N.J. — A deal that was supposed to offer cleaner air through tougher auto emissions tests has become a "mammoth boondoggle" that will cost New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars more than earlier estimates, a new state report says. The report, released this week, claims the process that awarded the contract to test car emissions benefited politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and the corporation that was the sole bidder for the work. "The investigation revealed an ill-conceived state process undermined by mismanagement from within and tainted by manipulation from without," the State Commission of Investigation report said.

The computerized vehicle emissions test system will have cost $590 million when the contract expires in 2005, the report said — $200 million more than original estimates. Had the state done the job itself, the testing system would have cost $339 million, the report said. The deal "constituted the framework for a mammoth boondoggle perpetrated by a government upon its citizens," the report said.

The contract — awarded to the politically connected Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group of Pasadena, Calif. — has resulted in two legislative investigations and proposals to limit state work given to companies that make political contributions.

Parsons agreed to set up a system that analyzed engine emissions by placing the vehicle on a treadmill and spinning the wheels at highway speeds. The older test analyzed the exhaust from the tailpipe while the vehicle was idling.

When the computerized system was launched in December 1999, emissions testing came to a virtual standstill. There were long waits at inspection stations. Equipment froze and computers crashed, among other problems.

Parsons Infrastructure hired key lobbyists and made significant donations to politicians involved in the decision, the report said. The company also had regular contact with ranking members of former Gov. Christie Whitman's administration while they were drawing up the contract specifications, the report said.

"Although patently suspect, the legal and ethical propriety of such contacts technically remains open to question because administrative directives designed to discourage them from taking place lack the force of law or regulation," the report said.

Gov. James E. McGreevey, who has criticized the Parsons deal since it was made, wants to break the contract. He is awaiting results of his own audit. "Basically, it's an indictment of state government," McGreevey said of Wednesday's report. "If it wasn't criminal, it ought to have been."

Now EPA director, Whitman defended her decision and her administration in a letter to the state investigators. "Installing a system of this size and complexity of this magnitude is difficult, even under the best of circumstances," Whitman said.

Parsons officials, who are cooperating with the McGreevey audit, challenged several points raised by the commission. "There is neither mismanagement, excessive costs, nor nonperformance on this contract," Parsons Vice President James O. Singer said.

In 2000, a four-month investigation headed by a retired Supreme Court justice said top state officials aggravated Parsons' poor performance by ignoring or concealing warnings that the company was bungling the auto inspection system.

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