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Roundtable: Freeway Guardrails, Housing-Eviction Details, Blue Angels Derailed

April 12, 2013 1:24 p.m.


Mark Sauer


Mitch Blacher, 10 News

Megan Burks, KPBS News/Voice of San Diego

Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Related Story: Roundtable: Freeway Guardrails, Housing-Eviction Details, Blue Angels Derailed


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

SAUER: This is the Roundtable on KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Mark Sauer. 10 News investigator Mitch Blacher. It seemed a small redesign, one intended to lower costs. Now that adjustment subbing blamed for horrific vehicle crashes.

BLACHER: This company is called Trinity industries. They manufacture guardrails all over the country. They sell to all 50 state, all departments of transportation, as well as 60 different countries internationally. In 2000 they created a guardrail with a 5-inch head. This is the front of the guardrail, the checkered orange and black section you see driving down the highway. That piece attaches to the actual guardrail, and the held all the way around was 5 inches in 2000. In 2005, the company changed it to a 4-inch weld. And there are allegations that that change made the guardrail unsafe. There are pictures, there are account, there are lawsuits where people claim that the 4-inch guardrail head detaches from the guardrail when collided with, and it then acts as a spear. It can impale a car. These are the allegations, going from the front of the car through the engine block all the way through the taillights.

SAUER: Wow. And the previous design would not have this impaling effect? It would collapse?

BLACHER: Yeah, the 5-inch would accordion. That's the allegation. In 1999, the 5-inch guardrail head and the guardrail it attaches to was tested. There are videos of this test. There's no video of the 2005 4-inch guardrail, the one from -- the one that was changed in 2005.

SAUER: I did want to ask you that they're used widely here in San Diego County, across the nation, and in other countries?

BLACHER: 60 other countries. This is a $4 billion company.

SAUER: So there's a whistleblower now in the center of these things. Tell us his claim against Trinity.

BLACHER: His name is Joshua Harmon, he is really for all intents and purposes the reason that this game to light. He has alleged that these guardrails are unsafe. And the way that he did that, he is a director competitor of Trinity. He's a guardrail manufacturer in Virginia. And he reverse engineered the 4-inch guardrail, and in the process of that discovered it was unsafe. Here is the tricky part in this whole case, his credibility is questioned by Trinity because he's their competitor. And also when he reverse engineered this product, it was copyrighted. It was a protected product. So Trinity sued him.

SAUER: But he wasn't aware of that.

BLACHER: Right. His lawyers and he say they were unaware of that. Trinity says now he's gone around and bashed their product simply because he couldn't recreate it.

SAUER: Okay. But he is going around, singing from the rooftops on this one.

BLACHER: He is a guy who literally drives the highways of America and looks for 4-inch guardrail heads.

SAUER: He's made it his life mission.

BLACHER: This is a crusade for him. It is a very personal crusade. So he reverse engineers this thing, tries to make money on it, discovers that he can't because it's copyright protected, but he still discovered in his words that there was a problem, that there was something dangerous about this product.

PERRY: Okay, two guys who own different companies are battling out. That's America.


>> What about the state and federal highway protection folks? The department that is supposed to make sure I can drive down interstate 8 safely? Where are they in all this? This allegation that they've got an unsafe gizmo on freeways? Are they looking into if?

BLACHER: Great question. This is the sticking point, the smoking gun, if you will. The federal highway administration, the agency federally in charge of approving these devices was unaware that there was any kind of change made in 2005. They didn't know that the guardrails that Trinity was giving them and they were approving for highway departments across the country to use went from 5 inches to 4 inches. They didn't know about this change until 2012, that is seven years after.

SAUER: How did that happen!

PERRY: I rise as the son whose father did contract work measuring for the federal government, and when they found you out of specifications, as I remember all those dinnertime conversation, they would come down on you like a ton of bricks. Why not this case where safety is involved?

BLACHER: This is a question we've asked the federal highway administration. We've called Caltrans about this as well. Very simply, there is documentation, there are e-mails from the federal highway administration to State Departments of transportation that say Trinity omitted this design detail. The fact that the guardrail was going to be physically smaller. In 2005, the federal highway administration approved this design. They approved it based on specifications that weren't accurate, but they approved it. Now they have to cover their bases.

PERRY: Is this contract that the company has totally open-ended? Do they have to rebid at some point?

BLACHER: Yit's not an open-ended contract. But Trinity is a huge, huge player in this industry. It is a $4 billion company.

PERRY: Are they protected politically?

BLACHER: They have lobbyists, certainly.

SAUER: Megan?

BURKS: How does the approval process work for this? Does the federal government just get a piece of paper saying everything is okay, or are there crash tests?

BLACHER: There are crash tests. They say the 4-inch guardrail currently on roads was crash-tested in 2005, and they did it themselves. They paid a private company to do it. An arm of Texas A&M university.

SAUER: Does this have to be approved by the federal highway administration?

BLACHER: If there's a design change, engineers need to see that design change. So the design change was presented to the federal highway administration, it simply omitted the fact that the guardrail was going to be an inch smaller in diameter.

SAUER: Going to Megan's point then, Texas A&M you said, right?

BLACHER: Uh-huh.

SAUER: Are they independent? Does the government acknowledge them as someone who's objective? Because their money comes from the company.

>> That's a tough question to answer. Simply put, yes. Their information was accepted by the government in 2005. However their information wasn't -- full disclosure.

SAUER: And was there a penalty from the feds?

BLACHER: No, no. No penalty.

SAUER: So they admit and they can see it. What's the status of the lawsuit? It's not just Harmon.

BLACHER: Right, Harmon is the loudest voice in this whole thing. And he's being sued for defamation for Trinity for the things that he's saying. But there are other lawsuits. There are lawsuits across the country alleging that Trinity's product has maimed, speared, or killed people.

SAUER: As far as you know, there's not these lawsuits in San Diego, but they are documented around the country.

>> From what we understand, we are the first agency that has done this in California. There was some reporting in Atlanta and Dallas where Trinity is hubbed. But it's moving its way east to west. So this is a relatively new product for our part of the country.

SAUER: All right. We're going to have to leave it there.


SAUER: Welcome back to the Roundtable. I'm Mark Sauer. Megan, you profiled a family to tell the effects of the zero tolerance policy in subsidized housing.

BURKS: I met Cheryl Camson in the fall. I started falling her and her sons. They had recently lost their home because of the federal zero-tolerance policy. They lived in a home in paradise hills that was covered by a Section 8 voucher. Cheryl's 18-year-old child at the time abused a child in the home. Section 8 is a federal policy that if you are low-income, it will pay for a portion of your rent each month of the so it's public housing assistance. And I talked to one lawyer who said if a family loses this, it can be a catastrophic loss, and in the case of the Camsons, each of her five kids have schizophrenia or precursors to it, so losing that home base is especially damaging for her two youngest kids:

SAUER: Now, who was it, and who committed the crime that got them booted?

BURKS: It was her middle son. He also has schizophrenia, and during a psychotic episode, he abused his son, and even though he was sentenced to jail for 36 years, they still lost that house.

SAUER: And this is between homelessness and having a stable place to live, right?

BURKS: Right. If you're on section 8, you're on it because you need that help. Cheryl tried living with some families and it didn't work, so she's now in a homeless shelter.

SAUER: Tell us about the zero-tolerance policy.

BURKS: This went into effect in 1994. So during the Clinton administration, that was the tail end when people started talking about do we really want to do this zero tolerance thing?

SAUER: One strike you're out.

BURKS: Right. And the policy says that if a member of your household or even a guest commits a crime, and this could even be smoking medical marijuana, the entire family has to go through the termination process.

PERRY: Does this happen all the time? A lot of folks get kicked out in San Diego for this?

BURKS: I couldn't get any numbers, but I talked to some lawyers who said they've seen it quite a few times in their years working on this.

PERRY: Is there a pattern? Does the single mother invite someone to live in the house and then he does something? Is that a pattern, for example?

BURKS: I didn't get into that, but if you're living in poverty, your family is at high risk of getting involved with some sort of criminal activity or people who may be with criminal activity and come over.

PERRY: What happened to the child that was abused?

BURKS: The child with the grandparents now.

SAUER: Mitch?

BLACHER: I'm wondering, do the feds see this as a problem? Doesn't -- what did they have to say to you?

BURKS: The feds, they do give local housing authorities the discretion to consider extenuating circumstances. But there's no really movement to amend this policy. It's up to the local authorities to decide to which extent they're going to consider those circumstances.

SAUER: So-so it was actually the San Diego housing commission?

BURKS: Yeah, the San Diego housing commission manages the section 8 program in the City of San Diego. So they were the ones that sent out the letter. And our commission does have an appeal process, but it just doesn't work for a lot of families. I did reach out to the commission to see how their process works. I didn't hear back from them. But talking to lawyers, they say if it's a violent act, the chances are really slim of having a successful appeal.

PERRY: I wonder if one of the reasons for this rule instituted is to less own the opposition from apartment owners and apartment dwellers who are not receiving section 8 to having section 8 folks rent, that is to say, yes, we're going to do this, but the minute they cause problems, they're out. I mean, could that possibly be a rationale for this? To lesson the opposition to having section 8 folks in an apartment building, for example?

BURKS: Certainly. I think it's definitely there to protect the neighbors and to protect the owners of the building. So there's also, you have to look at -- we've kind of softened our stance on zero tolerance in a lot of other sectors. But when it comes to welfare, it's still a very contentious issue. And I think people aren't talking as much about kind of changing our stance on zero tolerance there.

SAUER: Let's talk --

PERRY: I wouldn't mind if a guy next door to me smokes a little weed, but somebody next door that abused a small child? I'd be real upset by that.

SAUER: Yeah, and of course the circumstances in this case was the mental illness as you're talking about that might be a mitigating factor.

BURKS: Right. Certainly you have to consider what's going on with the neighbors and protecting them. But you also have to think now you've put two kids who have mental illnesses in a very unstable situation, and that puts them at risk of having some trouble with the law in the future.

SAUER: And new neighbors wherever they happen to be even in a shelter. Let's step back on zero tolerance itself and talking about how it's falling out of favor in some other areas.

BURKS: Last year in November, Californians voted to soften the three strikes law because we're starting to see the adverse effects of it.

SAUER: The pendulum swinging back.

BURKS: The number of people in jail for drug offenses grew from 50,000 to 400,000. So we're seeing that's not a good place to be really, really strict. So that's falling out of favor. And in schools, there's a movement to keeps kids in class instead. Suspending and expelling them again. You're taking a kid who has behavior problems and sending them to a place where there isn't a parent there.

SAUER: Right. Do taxpayers save any money when a family is evicted from subsidized housing?

BURKS: Is this the thing that's kind of curious for me. You kick the family out of section 8 housing, and where do they go? They go to the street or a homeless shelter, and either way taxpayers are still paying some money. The Camsons are at father Joe's, and a lot of their donations are private, to be for. But even the housing commission grants money to these beds that Cheryl is now sleeping in. So the housing commission is still paying for her, and taxpayers are.

PERRY: But father Joe doesn't have a come one, come all philosophy. If you're using, he's not going to take you at all.

SAUER: Right. Mitch?

BLACHER: What does this mean to these families? If these families get kicked out for something, drugs or abuse or what have you, you said they're high-risk. How long does it take them to get back in this program? Can they?

BURKS: You would have to wait for five years. And once you're on the waiting list again, you're going to be waiting another 8-10 years because there are so many people on this waiting list for section 8. So by the time Cheryl gets back on the waiting list, her kids are going to be well into adulthood.

BURKS: Doesn't that put them even more at risk to commit more crimes to need more money or --

BURKS: Certainly. If you're talking about taxpayer dollars, you have to look far down the line on how much we'll be spending on her children.

PERRY: What about the District Attorney? They used to have a pretty aggressive program of seeking out fathers and child support, make them own up to their responsibilities. Any of that going down in the case that you're talking about? Are those fathers supporting those children, for example?

BURKS: The father is not in the picture right now. And I don't know what his financial situation is. But there's a case of domestic abuse in this case.

SAUER: Tell us about the list in general that you referred to, it's remarkably long.

BURKS: The waiting list to get a section 8 voucher that you can use to pay for a home that accepts section 8, the list is incredibly long in San Diego, and it could get even longer because of sequestration cuts.

SAUER: All right. We're going to have to wrap it there. Thank you very much

BURKS: Thank you.


SAUER: Welcome back to the Roundtable.

(Audio Recording Played)

[MUSIC] Oh, blue angel -- don't you cry! Just because we -- said goodbye! [MUSIC]

SAUER: Oh, I got tears in my eyes! Roy Orbison. We're going to have to say goodbye to the Blue Angels! That's one of the more visible cuts to the military's budget announced this week. They won't appear at this year's Mira Mar airshow.

PERRY: Sequestration --

SAUER: That lovely word.

PERRY: That is hard to say and even harder to live through, apparently in some ways. $500 billion Pentagon budget, 7% cut under the automatic cuts, and to save about $20 million, the Navy's Blue Angels counseling team is canceling 30-plus performances from now until the end of the year including Mira Mar, the Ventura show, the whole show was canceled, and San Francisco Fleet Week. But they are not important enough to the Mira Mar show to cancel the Mira Mar show. It will continue for a couple of different reasons. The Marine Corps has an income stream from the vendors that are selling hotdogs and the rest of it that takes it off of the federal budget totally and -- and also they've got all the stuff right there! They don't have to fly it in from somewhere else. So it will still occur. But the Blue Angels will not be roaring overhead at 200 feet at 700 miles an hour, which had been the show-stopper.

SAUER: And the thunderbirds also.

PERRY: The airforce thunder birds, which the Navy will tell you is a pale imitation of the Blue Angels.

PERRY: They will not be appearing either. All of the aerial demonstrations have been grounded.

SAUER: So it's not a lot of money. But is it more this kind of billboard thing, hey, folks we're really hurting?

PERRY: You could argue that. The Blue Angels since 1946 have been a part of the American scene, second only to a French aerial team that's a little bit older. They're important. I think 11 million people a year would watch their performances, and now they won't watch them.

BLACHER: I'm wondering if you think this is a result more of sequestration or the resources that have to be diverted now to North Korea. &%F0

PERRY: I don't think Korea -- the military doesn't move that quickly, and Korea only bubbled up in the last few weeks. I think it's sequestration, and also very hard to say we're not going to deploy some ships, we're not going to train some folks in harm's way, but we've got this public relations demonstration team that we just have to have. I think they'll have it back as soon as they can.

SAUER: It helps with recruiters.

PERRY: Oh, recruiting, public relations, and it's been around since 1946. Very hard to continue that while you're cutting back things and people that are assigned to go into harm's way.

BURKS: Does losing the Blue Angels hurt local economies in any way?

PERRY: I'll bet. The Ventura show, they hoped to have 200,000 people at it. First show they have had in three years. They haven't had the Blue Angels since 1999. They were hoping for a big turnout! Not now. San Francisco Fleet Week, they're still hanging onto the ropes up there, but it's going to take a hit too. San Diego, I'll bet we see a decrease in attendance here. 200 feet, 700 miles an hour overhead is pretty dramatic.

BLACHER: What are they going to put on the cover now?

PERRY: Well, exactly.

BLACHER: All the promotional material!

PERRY: Indeed. And what are they going to invite us Presseys to take a ride?

SAUER: Fly upside down and lose your lunch.

SAUER: We've all been invited to do that!

PERRY: Indeed.

SAUER: Let me talk about something that's very serious. Secretary of state John Kerry is in South Korea today, missiles are pointing at us. Are Pendleton marines training for a confrontation in that peninsula?

PERRY: They're always training. And indeed they do go up to bridgeport and train in the cold in case they someday have to go to a mountainous area that snows to locate, close, engage and kill America's combatant enemies. In this particular instance, it's still a what's he going to fire into the air, how dangerous is it, and can we shoot it down before it does any harm to us? I think that's far farfetched, he does not seem to have something that could get all the way here. Although South Korea, Japan, both of our aleyes, Guam, where we have considerable assets, who knows? Here we go again! Does this remind you of something that happened ten years ago? Dealing with a dictator in a closed society, and we're unsure what weapon he has, how he's going to deliver it, what's going through his mind, and what we can do about it!

SAUER: At least in this case he's doing the provocation here.

PERRY: That he is. But with him, the question is what do you want!

SAUER: Right!

PERRY: What do you want! Well, he wants us to go away from South Korea. That's not going to happen. He wants us to say, well, we won't defend Japan. That's not going to happen. But other than that, what does he want? He may need -- I was talking to a marine officer who has considerable experience in the Korean peninsula. He said he may need some sort of show for his internal constituency, those generals who could put a gun to his head and say you're in retirement, there 29-year-old. The question is, will it just go plunk in the ocean or be serious?

SAUER: As one recently did.

PERRY: And there's a new boss in South Korea, a new female president, and she the Korean equivalent of Margaret Thatcher. She's tough as nails. Let's see what she does.

SAUER: That all plays in. Mitch?

BLACHER: Worst case scenario, a war in North Korea. When is the last time we heard of a war in cold weather that Americans have fought in?

PERRY: Indeed. It could get real bad because the Chinese are involved. And they don't want a totally failed war in North Korea and millions of people streaming across their borders. They don't want a total collapse. On the other hand, they do not want us to be the supreme power in that part of the world unquestioned. So they've got mixed motives, and their rhetoric is mixed also.

BLACHER: Talk about a logistical pivot from wars in the Middle East to North Korea.

PERRY: Indeed, indeed. But it could be an air war also.

SAUER: What about the Navy? We mentioned the Marines.

PERRY: It would be initially from what I've told, a naval engagement on our side of the fence. There are ships in the south China sea right now including a San Diego ship, including a carrier out of Bremerton, that are ready to put the hurt on people that want to put the hurt on people that we support.

SAUER: Now you assume if it comes to some sort of war on some level that that may be the end of sequestration as far as the military is concerned now.

PERRY: I would imagine. We're not going to stand by while American allies are damaged and drawn into a serious conflict.

SAUER: The secretary of state is there today. There were some rumors they might try to fire on the south while secretary Kerry is this as a show. Did he go there and become in close proximity to call a bluff?

PERRY: Well, he's in Seoul. And you're right, Monday is an anniversary that is important to the North Koreans. We've seen other things done on anniversaries. Anniversaries somehow set certain people off. So we'll be on guard that day and for the foreseeable future.