A company being sued by the Municipality of Anchorage over the botched Port of Anchorage expansion project wants to depose 86-year-old Bill Sheffield, former Alaska governor and retired port director, as soon as possible, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.
Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., or ICRC, says Sheffield knows more about the port project than any other current or former municipal employee -- referencing an email in which Sheffield refers to himself as "God" as an example of the authority he believed he wielded over the project. But other parties in the lawsuit, including the municipality, are pushing back against ICRC's request, calling it "premature" and "procedurally improper," according to court documents.
When reached by phone last week, Sheffield told Alaska Dispatch News he was unaware of the recent court filings that targeted him for out-of-court sworn testimony.
"This is an ongoing thing," Sheffield said of the lawsuit. "So I probably better wait for the city's attorneys to inform me and let me know what's going on."
Last year, the municipality filed suit against three companies tied to the port project: ICRC, project construction manager; PND Engineers Inc., the port designer; and CH2M Hill Alaska Inc., for work in its prior role as Veco Alaska Inc., analyzing the expansion's design for stability. The municipality is blaming the firms for complex and expensive problems with the port expansion, but all three defendants have asked for dismissal in responses to the municipality's claims.
So far, the port project has cost the municipality more than $300 million for new acreage, a rail line, roads, utilities, drainage systems and the partial construction of a now-unusable new port section. The design for the port expansion project sits in the center of the controversy.
More than a decade ago, the municipality chose an unconventional design for the project known as open cell sheet pile, patented by PND Engineers. Giant hammers operated from cranes drove long sheets of steel into the Knik Arm seabed. The sheets connected to one another in a series of horseshoe shaped-cells that would serve as a new dock face and be backfilled with sand and gravel, essentially creating new land. But some of the sheets bent, twisted and jammed during installation.
Construction was halted in 2009 when the structure was about one-third built. Cost estimates ballooned from $211 million in 2003 to $1 billion in 2011, according to a federal audit. The municipality has only recently decided to scrap the partial construction and start over, this time downsizing the project.
Now, in court, it's a question of who is to blame for the beleaguered port expansion and what caused the project to go awry.
ICRC says Sheffield has a lot of the answers. He served as the director of the Port of Anchorage from June 2001 to January 2012 -- a time during which the expansion design was selected, construction started and then stopped.
In a motion filed Oct. 7, ICRC asks for two consecutive days before the Thanksgiving holiday to gather out-of-court sworn testimony from Sheffield, adding the other defendants may take subsequent testimony from him if they choose to do so.
The company's attorneys provided 10 exhibits filed with its motion -- including emails, Anchorage Assembly minutes and memorandums -- to prove Sheffield's "substantial involvement" in the project and in choosing its design, according to a memorandum filed by the company's attorneys.
ICRC said Sheffield's testimony is not only essential for trial preparation but will also likely reduce the need to bring forth written documents on facts Sheffield can provide. The company also underscores Sheffield's age as a reason to expedite testimony, according to the memorandum.
"While Sheffield has maintained a remarkably active public life for decades after many people focus on retirement, his age is a consideration that cannot be overlooked -- even if he has no immediate health concerns," the memorandum says.
Sheffield declined to comment on the specifics of ICRC's request, saying he "probably shouldn't say anything because if I'm going to be a witness, I'd have to do it at that time." As for signing an email to an ICRC employee as "God," he laughed and said, "I don't remember that."
Opposing ICRC, PND Engineers filed a response Friday arguing the company does not dispute Sheffield should submit out-of-court sworn testimony but the other parties would "suffer clear prejudice if they were forced to conduct that deposition in accordance with ICRC's artificial deadlines."
The parties are currently in the "discovery phase" of the case, meaning they're digging up pertinent documents, emails, contracts and the like. ICRC says some of these documents may prove beneficial during the questioning of Sheffield, but not all have been gathered yet. Discovery does not close until June 1.
PND also cites pending motions that could jostle the list of defendants as a reason why the court should deny ICRC's request. If the court approves the pending motions, PND and CH2M Hill could be dismissed from the lawsuit, and two additional firms -- GeoEngineers Inc. and Terracon Inc. -- could be brought on.
The outcomes would affect who may attend the deposition of Sheffield by ICRC, PND says.
PND's claims are echoed in the municipality's opposition to ICRC's motion.
The municipality says it has "no control over Mr. Sheffield and cannot produce him for deposition," adding ICRC has failed to issue a subpoena or notice for Sheffield's testimony. It says ICRC's request is premature and "overly burdensome" to the municipality as it would require the municipality to prepare for and attend multiple depositions of the same witness, according to the document filed Friday by the municipality's lawyers.
The decision whether Sheffield will have to submit out-of-court sworn testimony and when is up to U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, when the question of Sheffield's testimony is likely to be raised, according to attorneys.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing