The Muckraker: Tunnel Vision

It's standard operating procedure for a savvy salesman — especially one who wants his next job to be U.S. senator from Massachusetts — to end a meeting with a firm handshake, an expression of sincere desire to get together again soon, and the customary exchange of cards. But Christy Mihos is no ordinary businessman, and tonight the former South Shore-convenience-store magnate is on a mission. Supper with him at Grill 23 becomes dinner-theater, the stage for a Shakespearean monologue of intrigue and righteous indignation, a nearly three-hour manifesto so earnest and intense, the caesar salad and salmon go virtually untouched. When he's finally spent, instead of takeaway, the Big Dig's most notorious whistleblower hands over a videotape accompanied by an urgent admonition: “Take a look at this, and you'll see what I've been through.'

Call it the Christy Chronicles, a compilation of news clips from 2001 and 2002, when Mihos waged a public battle against acting Governor Jane Swift and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority leadership over the management and funding of a public-works project that had already earned the sobriquet “the Big Pig.' First comes a report on Swift's fateful attempt to fire Mihos and fellow Turnpike Authority board member Jordan Levy for refusing to approve a plan to pay for the state's portion of Big Dig costs with big toll increases — a move Mihos claimed was motivated by Swift's desire to stifle questions about the project's runaway price tag. Next up is an August 2002 interview on CNBC, the financial-news cable channel. Asked if the staggering red ink reflects corruption or mere mismanagement, Mihos replies: “Somewhere in between. The politicians try and move this thing forward so quickly that the contracts go out, and they're not totally designed. Unless someone is diligent and stringent about watching these cost overruns, that's where everything just gets unglued.'

Those sound bites come up again in Channel 5's coverage of a memorable September 2002 Turnpike Authority board meeting. After chairman Matt Amorello and general counsel Michael Powers play back the comments, Powers points a bony finger at Mihos and berates him for allegedly compromising the authority's ability to sell bonds on Wall Street by undermining the Big Dig's credibility: The public criticism “HAS TO STOP!' Powers screams. Mihos looks shaken, and the unusually venomous public tongue-lashing in turn enrages Levy. “When you treat people like a dog, they're gonna bark,' he shouts. “And he's gonna bark as long as you whip him!'

Don't worry if you missed these highlights: The next episode of the Christy Mihos saga is already in production. Whether or not John Kerry decides to run again for president, Mihos is committed to seeking Kerry's seat — “I'm in,' he says, stating for the first time his unequivocal intention to make a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2008. If he's feeling emboldened these days, it's with good reason. From the Supreme Judicial Court ruling overturning his firing by Swift to the news stories confirming his warnings about inept Big Dig management, Mihos has enjoyed one vindication after another. His once-controversial claim that a lack of independent oversight had left the project “unglued,' in particular, seems eerily prophetic as water continues to seep through the I-93 tunnel's porous walls.

It's enough to leave you wondering: How much trouble could the state have saved itself by hearing Mihos out? Had the powers that be heeded his complaints about the incestuous Big Dig management setup — in which state officials essentially ceded control of ultracostly, problem-plagued construction under downtown Boston to the politically-connected engineering giant Bechtel — untold millions in overruns might have been avoided, and taxpayers might also be in better legal position to recover questionable costs. If a defensive Big Dig establishment and its political allies hadn't so brusquely dismissed his call for independent engineering oversight, they might not now be scrambling to fix hundreds of leaks that have shaken public confidence in the project's safety, turned Boston into an international laughingstock, and could prompt the withholding of millions in federal funds. Mihos was put on the turnpike board, he recalls then-Governor Paul Cellucci telling him, to provide “some business skills and acumen.' When he did, Democrats and Republicans alike turned their backs on him.

Which may yet turn out, amid stiff competition, to be one of the dumbest of the countless Big Dig blunders. Dropped from the turnpike board when his term expired last summer, Mihos still has plenty to say about the project's woes. He flatly predicts that official scrutiny of its management will one day result in criminal charges. “Anybody who's ever been involved is potentially at risk,' he says. Mihos also lashes out at Mitt Romney, the man he campaigned for to replace Swift, claiming the governor has been “AWOL' in not doing more to take control of the project. (A Romney spokesman notes that his administration's repeated efforts to put the Big Dig under the management of the state Highway Department have been thwarted by the legislature.) And Mihos offers a chilling prospect no other figure with knowledge of the project has ever publicly raised: Unless a reliable fix to the tunnel leaks is found soon, a worst-case scenario requiring extensive reconstruction could add up to a billion dollars to the final price tag. “If we can't get documents on the leaks, how can we really measure the true costs?' he asks.

If that sounds overblown — well, so did a lot of Mihos's now-prescient pronouncements. “I know I was right from the beginning,' says Mihos. Referring to his video, he adds in his matter-of-fact Brockton accent, “It's all they-ah.'

It takes some imagination to come up with a less likely nominee than Christy Mihos for the role of chief whistleblower on a project that had virtually unanimous, unquestioning support among civic and Beacon Hill heavies. The 55-year-old's plain looks and mild manner belie the fortune he collected from the sale of his Christy's Market convenience store chain, which was named after his corner-store-owner grandfather. When he's got a head of steam going, he speaks in sentence fragments that often cut each other off in traffic. At times, after recounting Big Dig horror stories, he falls speechless at the grievous injustice of it all. “He's kind of a gee-whiz, golly-gee kind of guy,' says state Senator Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who narrowly won the 1990 GOP primary that was Mihos's only bid for public office. “But that's deceptive.'

Son of a Navy veteran with a strong sense of patriotism, Mihos first challenged authority as an undergrad in the late 1960s at staunchly Catholic Stonehill College, where he successfully lobbied for contraceptives to be distributed in the infirmary. In his three-vote loss to Hedlund, his abortion-rights stance and opposition to a popular tax-cut petition cost him the support of conservatives. But the toughest fight of his career was one he didn't go looking for. After donating generously to Republican candidates throughout the 1990s, Mihos was appointed to the turnpike board in 1998. He admits he knew nothing of, and asked little about, the Big Dig until reporters exposed the cover-up of major cost overruns in the spring of 2000. “That was something handled behind closed doors' at the authority, Mihos recalls.

After chairman Jim Kerasiotes, a friend and ally, was forced out in the ensuing uproar, Mihos found himself embarrassed at his own passivity. Along with Levy, he started demanding more information about the design changes that were driving the budget's upward spiral. When Andrew Natsios, the turnpike's new boss, tried to bully them into silence, they bulldozed him instead. The two voted to hire the board's own engineer to monitor Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff's work and were trying to establish peer review of complicated project phases such as the troublesome I-93 tunnel when they were broomed by Swift. “Christy was an able, wonderful partner during that period,' recalls Levy, who remains on the board. “He's honorable, and he sees things in black and white, not in shades of gray.'

Others were less impressed. As Mihos's and Levy's suspicions about project mismanagement metastasized into the bitter battle with Swift over toll hikes, a Boston Globe editorial trashed the pair as “fiscally irresponsible' and “reckless,' claiming their presence on the board “threatens the completion of the Central Artery project.' The Swift sackings were endorsed by a Who's Who of business groups, including the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Mihos's alternative proposals for funding the project — such as averting toll hikes by selling off turnpike service plazas — were deemed “too scattered and not substantive enough,' says the organization's president, Michael Widmer.

Mihos's enemies found other ways to seek payback. During a Securities and Exchange Commission probe into the Kerasiotes-era cost overruns, Amorello tried to tar Mihos with culpability in the alleged cover-up. The public saw turnpike counsel Michael Powers ambush Mihos over the CNBC interview; they didn't see the letter from Powers suggesting ominously that if Mihos continued to correspond with him on Christy's Market stationery, “you might establish a relationship that could reach your private holdings for liability purposes.'

While Mihos remains proud of his unpolished style — at dinner, he beams when his wife says, “He's not a politician' — some observers argue that his maverick approach got in the way of his message. “He's a bomb tosser, and that's a good way to make enemies needlessly,' says a top political figure who shares Mihos's skepticism of Big Dig management. “Plus, he's always talking to the press, so you can't trust him.' But considering the political, editorial, and business-community wagons that were circled around Bechtel and the project's status quo, it's easy to see why behind-the-scenes maneuvering didn't seem like an option for Mihos and Levy. “We were by ourselves,' he recalls, “and we knew it.'

How times have changed. As the tunnel keeps leaking, public anger keeps mounting, and Mihos suddenly has plenty of company. The list of politicians who now echo his call for independent oversight includes the likes of Congressman Mike Capuano and Boston Mayor Tom Menino. Investigators from the federal Department of Transportation came to Boston to debrief Mihos and remain in contact with him. Even some former adversaries are beginning to give Mihos his props. “He was right about a lot of things,' concedes Capuano, a critic of Mihos in the past. Widmer, who had once called for Mihos's head, agrees. “The role of a gadfly, given the recent developments with the Artery, is one we could have used more of,' he says.

It's a role Mihos intends to continue playing. Despite appearances to the contrary, he cautions, not everything that could go wrong with the Big Dig already has. Mihos points to thousands of steel valances that adorn the top of the I-93 tunnel's walls. “All of those are fastened to the slurry wall with mechanical fasteners,' he says. “They don't do well when they're immersed in salt water or ground water. This metal will start to corrode, and they'll start to fall, just like the waterproofing and the fireproofing is falling.' Mihos also frets about a tunnel lighting system that he says “cannot stand up against' continual soakings.

“I'm not just gonna stand on the sidelines and watch this degenerate,' Mihos vows. And who's left to doubt him? Certainly not the likes of Cellucci, Swift, or Bill Weld, all exiles from the spotlight while Mihos growls on. With millions in the bank, time on his hands, and a videotaped reputation as that rarest of Massachusetts political creatures — a man who will go hunting for the truth no matter how hostile the weather — Mihos may soon give the local political elite a taste of the medicine he's been dishing out to Big Dig officials for years.

Over at project headquarters, they've learned the hard way what the only practical reaction is: Beware of dog.