A Chicago man pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges related to the manufacture of defective bearings installed in bridges on 19 highway projects built by the N.C. Department of Transportation between 2009 and 2011.
The affected projects included the Triangle Expressway in western Wake County. DOT said the faulty parts might cause maintenance problems in the future but did not threaten public safety. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker agreed.
“There wasn’t an immediate risk with these things,” said Don Connelly, spokesman for Walker, U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District. “It’s just one of those defects that would have an effect over time.”
Joel De La Torre, 33, of Chicago, pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and making false statements concerning highway projects.
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According to Walker’s office, De La Torre forged an application in North Carolina to supply elastomeric bridge bearings – slabs of rubber and steel that work as shock absorbers underneath bridges – to local contractors.
He used the name of a teenager who had knowledge that his name had been used. The teenager was falsely named as vice president of Delgado Elastomeric Bearings Corp., located in the Chicago area.
The teenager’s name and false title were used on certificates sent to North Carolina highway contractors that certified incorrectly that the bearings conformed with state and federal standards.
State and federal transportation officials began investigating after a highway contractor discovered in October 2011 that some bridge bearings shipped from the Delgado company to North Carolina were defective because the steel plates were exposed to the elements, which would allow them to deteriorate.
DOT contractors received 1,270 defective bearings, Walker’s office said. An inspection revealed that the Delgado manufacturing plant did not have the required testing devices that would have revealed the defects.
De La Torre will be sentenced in July and faces up to 5 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.
Walker’s office said it would cost more than $5 million to replace the defective bearings. State DOT spokesman Steve Abbott said the parts were inspected and some were repaired, but no replacements were needed.
“This was a maintenance issue, as the bearings did not provide the proper protection from the environment for steel plates on the bridges,” Abbott said. “That could lead to faster deterioration of the plates, that in turn could require repairs earlier than would be normally needed.”