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Bridge Victims' Lawyers Sue State

Access to records sought from MnDOT

Author / Coordinator: Jason Hoppin
Pioneer Press
October 2007

Victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse sued the Minnesota Department of Transportation on Thursday for its failure to turn over public information since the bridge fell Aug. 1.

Filed in Hennepin County District Court, the suit seeks access to all records, studies, inspections, contracts and visual materials relating to the bridge and its collapse. The lawyer who filed the suit, James Schwebel, said he also wants access to investigative materials produced by the Northbrook, Ill., firm of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., which MnDOT hired to investigate the cause of the collapse.

"The information that this firm is acquiring should be disclosed to the press and the public," Schwebel said. "MnDOT is refusing to make this critical information available and has no valid reason for withholding it from the people of Minnesota and, in particular, the victims."

Shortly after the collapse, lawyers for the victims sought access to the bridge site in federal court but were denied. MnDOT later granted limited access, but experts hired by the victims' lawyers have not been allowed to inspect critical pieces of the bridge while the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.

Schwebel's firm, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, is one of at least two teams of lawyers representing collapse victims, including relatives of the 13 people killed. The firm has made two formal requests to MnDOT for the information under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, to no avail, the suit notes.

Wiss Janney's investigation parallels the one by the NTSB. Shortly after the collapse, the state gave the firm a $2 million contract for its work.

The firm has been granted broad access to the site and was involved in a finding that steel gusset plates, which held bridge beams together, might have been a factor in the collapse.

But the arrangement was questioned in an Associated Press report last month, with former NTSB Chairman Jim Burnett expressing skepticism about the independence of Wiss Janney's investigation.

Shortly after the collapse, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson ordered MnDOT to preserve documents relating to all Minnesota bridges. While the agency has posted volumes of information on its Web site, obtaining more specific information can be a slow process as MnDOT tries to fill dozens of Data Practices Act requests.

MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender said she could not discuss the details of a lawsuit while it was in court but said the department is trying to respond to requests for information.

"We have had an extraordinary - I can't think of a superlative bigger than that - number of Data Practices requests since the collapse of the bridge, and we are working our best to fill them," Kender said.

In addition, studies looking at MnDOT and its decision-making are expected from the Office of the Legislative Auditor and possibly from the joint state House-Senate committee
investigating the collapse.

Schwebel said he has been unable to gain access to the site and pieces of the bridge recovered by the NTSB.

"The NTSB continues to stonewall us and nevertheless has entered into this cozy arrangement with (Wiss Janney)," Schwebel said. "The victims don't think this passes the smell test."

"There's no reason why the public and the victims shouldn't be entitled to an impartial look at all this evidence," he added.