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Boston Highway Supervisor Put On Unpaid Leave After Comments

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Transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan points at the corroded mount of a light fixture that fell apart February in a Big Dig tunnel.  Highway supervisor Helmut Ernst and highway administrator Frank Tramontozzi stand next to him.

Transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan points at the corroded mount of a light fixture that fell apart February in a Big Dig tunnel. Highway supervisor Helmut Ernst and highway administrator Frank Tramontozzi stand next to him.

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BOSTON (AP) — A highway supervisor has been placed on unpaid leave pending an investigation into remarks he made after a 110-pound corroded Big Dig light fixture collapsed earlier this year, the state transportation secretary said Wednesday.

Department of Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan also announced at a board meeting on Wednesday that he was bringing in an outside law firm to conduct a review of the comments made by district highway supervisor Helmut Ernst and report back in 10 days.

Ernst told The Boston Globe in a recent interview that he and other engineers “have been trained not to” put safety concerns into writing, citing litigation that arose from the death of a motorist after a Big Dig ceiling panel collapsed in 2006.

Ernst also told the newspaper he disagreed with Mullan’s decision to accept the resignation of state highway administrator Frank Tramontozzi, who came under fire for not immediately reporting the February lighting collapse.

Ernst, whose district includes Boston and the surrounding areas, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. A telephone message left at his home Wednesday night wasn’t immediately returned.

Mullan said he had spoken with Ernst, who was “not pleased” with being put on administrative leave and believed his quotes were taken out of context. Mullan did not elaborate.

“I’m mostly concerned about the comments, the context within which they were offered and the overall conduct of (Ernst),” Mullan said.

Mullan said it’s equally important to get to the bottom of the larger issue of whether potential transportation safety problems are being documented and reported in a timely fashion.

“It could be that that’s an old practice,” Mullan said. “That’s probably the No. 1 lesson. This is not going to happen again.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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