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Old firm's building projects reviewed

A now-defunct construction contractor cut corners on pillars at Baltimore City Community College's Liberty Campus in 1965, potentially putting occupants of the building at grave risk more than 35 years later, a state Cabinet secretary told the Board of Public Works yesterday.

The discovery of the allegedly shoddy work -- now repaired -- has prompted state officials to inquire about other public buildings and schools built in Maryland by the contractor, Lacchi Construction Co.

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They won't have to look far. In the 1960s, the company was the general contractor on an Annapolis building adjacent to the offices of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, two of the three members of the public works board.

The matter has been referred to the state attorney general to determine whether the state can take civil or criminal action against any successor firm or former principals of the company.

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"There should be criminal liability," said General Services Secretary Boyd Rutherford. "It was intentional cutting of corners, and it put life and safety at risk."

Sean Caine, a spokesman for state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said yesterday that he could not confirm or deny that the attorney general's office is investigating, adding that such an inquiry would take considerable time for the office to uncover the details.

Bennett R. Dillon Jr., who became a Lacchi vice president 13 years after the community college project was completed, said he had heard nothing about the allegation before a reporter called him last night.

He said he believes the company did reputable work.

"It's the first time something like this has come up," Dillon said.

In addition to the community college, the firm built a number of school buildings in Baltimore and Baltimore County and at least one in Anne Arundel County.

Rutherford briefed the board on the Liberty Campus yesterday as he sought approval of an additional payment of $334,407 to the company that found and fixed the problem as part of the renovation of the campus' main building.

The current contractor, Roy Kirby & Sons Inc. of Baltimore, discovered last summer that some of the concrete pillars in the building were not properly reinforced with steel rebar, Rutherford said.

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The secretary said the steel supports were supposed to run from ceiling to floor but in some cases ran only 5 feet. Had the defect not been caught, the pillars might not have been able to bear the added weight from the renovation, he said.

"Roy Kirby stated that the building could have collapsed," Rutherford said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., calling the BCCC construction job a clear case of negligence, said the state was lucky the problem was discovered.

When the structure was built between 1963 and 1965, it was a city project. The current renovation is a state project because Maryland has since assumed the costs of community college construction.

In April 1963, the Lacchi firm submitted the low bid of $4.575 million to beat out seven rivals for the contract to build the new campus of what was then the Baltimore Junior College at Liberty Heights Avenue near Druid Park Drive. The project consisted of an academic building, a gymnasium and a library.

Rutherford said he had asked his department's staff to determine whether the Lacchi firm, which went out of business more than 20 years ago, had done other construction projects for the state. He said he had also asked the Interagency Committee on School Construction to determine whether Lacchi had built any public schools.

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As of late yesterday, officials at the two agencies said they had not found other Lacchi projects, but they were apparently hampered by a lack of accessible records of decades-old projects.

Evidence of one of Lacchi's projects was hidden in plain sight. A flag-covered plaque in the lobby of the Revenue Administration Building, which lies between the Goldstein Treasury Building and the Miller Senate Office Building on the Annapolis government campus, lists the company as its builder.

A 1965 Sun article shows that Lacchi was awarded the contract to build the structure, which houses employees of the Comptroller's Office, for $2.3 million.

The Sun and Evening Sun archives showed that the company was once a considerable player in the government construction business in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The newspaper archives show that the company successfully bid to build Perry Hall Elementary School and the Old Court Junior High for Baltimore County's school system, as well as the county parking garage that still stands at Susquehanna and Washington Avenue in Towson.

In Baltimore, the company was selected to build the Mary E. Rodman Elementary School and a major addition to Mount Washington Elementary School. Its Anne Arundel County project was the construction of Arnold Junior High School.

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The firm also built the geriatrics unit and the kitchen and storage facilities at Springfield State Hospital in Carroll County.

It could not be determined last night which of the buildings were still in use, or if any had been renovated.

Reached at his Fallston home last night, Dillon said the company went out of business in 1979 or 1980 after its president, Raymond F. Knowles, died. He said Knowles was the son-in-law of Primo Lacchi, the company's founder.

Dillon said that he served 15 years with Lacchi and that the company primarily built projects for the state and for school systems in several Maryland counties.

The former executive said he had not been contacted by the attorney general's office.

Sun researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.


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