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Whistleblowers, activists call for federal probe into Peace Bridge road project

WASHINGTON – A Washington, D.C.-based whistleblowers group and neighborhood activists near the Peace Bridge are seeking a federal investigation of the state’s project to improve highway access at the span, accusing the Cuomo administration official in charge of the project of ignoring a key environmental law – and committing a criminal offense by misleading the public about it.

In separate letters to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association say that Maria C. Lehman, an engineer for the state, broke the law by beginning work on the Peace Bridge highway improvements before an environmental review was completed.

Moreover, an audiotape of an April 2014 Peace Bridge Authority meeting includes “shocking revelations of deception used to hide information from the public and expedite the Gateway Project,” the whistleblower group says in its letter to Calvin L. Scovel III, the U.S. DOT’s inspector general.

Meanwhile, the citizens group also noted that after the state granted an engineering contract tied to the project, the contractor hired Lehman’s son.

For its part, however, the state Department of Transportation rejected the allegations out of hand.

“This is the same warmed-over rhetoric that has been pushed for months by a Washington-based group intent on stifling the progress being made at this international border crossing that is so critical to the region’s economic prosperity,” said Beau Duffy, a spokesman for the state DOT. “All state and federal guidelines regarding public input on this project were followed.”

The complaints stem largely from statements that Lehman made at that April 2014 Peace Bridge Authority meeting.

“The design is underway” for the state project, which aims to improve highway access at the bridge and restore Front Park, Lehman said at the April 25, 2014 meeting.

About a month later, PEER notes, the state DOT posted 434 pages of plans for the project on its website – seven days before the completion of an environmental review required under the National Environmental Policy Act. What’s more, a crane appeared on a barge in the Niagara River before the end of the environmental review, signaling that work was starting before it should have under the law, the whistleblower group and the neighborhood activists say.

“It is particularly critical that you order (the Federal Highway Administration) and NYSDOT to halt further construction of the Gateway project until your office completes its investigation into these egregious and gratuitous violations,” PEER said in its letter to the inspector general.

The state, however, said there was nothing wrong with the work that began before the environmental review was completed.

“The only physical work on the project prior to the record of decision being issued was preliminary design work, which is allowable under the law and was pre-cleared with our partners on the federal level,” Duffy said.

But PEER and the citizens group also noted that Lehman said at that April 25 meeting that the state had deliberately not publicized its work on the project in order to avoid provoking public opposition. In addition, PEER noted that Lehman said she had worked with Common Council members to hide property transactions tied to the project – a statement that Darius Pridgen, the Council president, later termed “a lie.”

Reviewing all of that, the whistleblower group accused Lehman of a federal crime – making false statements – and asked the inspector general to investigate.

Duffy, the state spokesman, dismissed PEER’s allegations as “completely meritless.”

But Kathleen R. Mecca, president of the neighborhood group, went one big step further, accusing Lehman of engineering a no-bid engineering contract on the project with a company that later hired her son.

“At the behest of Ms. Lehman, the New York State Department of Transportation awarded an estimated $10 million no-bid contract to her former employer, Parsons Transportation Services, for environmental services, engineering drawings, and construction documents for the New York Gateway Connections Improvement Project; in return, the company hired Ms. Lehman’s son, Geoffrey Lehman,” Mecca alleged.

State officials took grave offense at Mecca’s allegations.

For one thing, Duffy said the state’s deal with Parsons is not a no-bid contract.

“This firm has a statewide design services agreement with the New York State Department of Transportation, which was awarded as part of a competitive process and approved by both the attorney general and the state comptroller,” Duffy said. “Maria, a state Thruway employee, had no role in this procurement process.”

And while Parsons Transportation did hire the younger Lehman as a structural and design engineer in February 2014, according to his Facebook page, Duffy indicated that it was wrong for Mecca to tie his hiring to a $10 million contract that Parsons – which does $3 billion in sales annually – has with the state.

“Frankly, it’s irresponsible that someone with no obvious grasp of the facts would resort to character assassination in order to stop progress at the Peace Bridge,” Duffy said.

Neither Parsons nor the younger Lehman responded to requests for comment.