NORFOLK, Va., (WAVY) - A former TME Enterprises, Inc. employee told 10 On Your Side the VDOT contractor cut corners by buying cheap asphalt mix to repair potholes.
Last month, dozens of potholes opened up following a rainstorm, causing thousands of dollars in damage for local drivers. The Virginia Department of Transportation shut down the interstate for emergency pothole repairs, contracted to TME.
Bob Labianco told WAVY.com he has worked off and on with TME since the 1990s through last month. Now, he is making some very serious allegations about his former employer.
"To be honest I don't think they knew it was going to get that bad," LaBianco said. "TME is going to be as cheap as possible. They are going to go as minimal as possible. If you give them a scale of one to 10, they are going to go point nine."
Labianco claims TME cut corners by buying cold mix asphalt from local home improvement stores.
To apply the mix, you simply pour it into the pothole and pack it down.
"It's the cheap way out. It's getting it taken care of, but it's not a permanent fix at all," Labianco said.
An internal report issued last week by VDOT's chief engineer said even though cold mix can be used by contractors, it does not hold up well in rain and traffic.
Using cold mix might not have been an issue, if TME had then returned and made permanent repairs to the potholes. The VDOT reports said there is little evidence that ever happened.
Labianco said he does not believe that permanent fixes were ever added. He tells WAVY.com that during his time at TME, his crew used cold mix for all pothole repairs.
10 On Your Side requested an interview with TME officials to get their side of the story last week. They refused to do an on-camera interview and instead only answered questions by email through a VDOT spokesperson.
WAVY.com also submitted follow-up questions Monday, which have not been answered.
In an email response to 10 On Your Side's questions, the TME President Matt Ehrenzeller said the company has used cold mix from local hardware stores on occasion. He emphasized that the purchase was approved by VDOT.
Labianco also claims TME workers would erase pothole work orders out of fear of being fined by VDOT for missing work deadlines. As a zone manager, LaBianco said he was responsible for checking work orders.
"I'm like, 'Who closed this out?,'" Labianco said. "Nobody had an answer. I'm like, 'Don't close out my work orders. That's my job, that's my name on those work orders.'"
Ehrenzeller denied that claim, simply responding in an email: "No."
Labianco said TME's system to report and fix potholes wasted time and resources. He said he would routinely be dispatched to fix potholes that had already been repaired by other crews.
He also told WAVY.com drivers would repeatedly call him and say they had been waiting for potholes to be repaired for weeks. Labianco said this happened because the system to report and fix potholes is difficult for TME employees to manage and he would often get duplicate requests.
"I would say, 'How come we keep filling out these [work orders] when every week we are writing the same thing down?'," Labianco said. "I have month after month the same problem but nobody seemed to be fixing anything."
Labianco says he was let go from TME for refusing to do what he called "unsafe work" after the pothole mess last month.
He said before being fired from TME, he took great pride in his job as a zone manager. He also took the responsibility of protecting his coworkers in the field seriously.
"I thought being out there with those guys that their safety was my job," Labianco said. "I'm proof of that for being fired, because I didn't want to get out there and put my life on the line."
Labianco said things changed at TME after last month's incident. He said company managers were fearful of losing the company's multi-million dollar contract with VDOT. They started asking workers to go out alone and patch potholes.
Labianco was worried about being hit by a car or not being seen by drivers.
"They wanted me to take my F-350, take a lane, and get in front of [a pothole] and start doing potholes," Labianco said. "If [drivers] can't see trucks, what makes me think they are going to see my truck? I had no advance warning."
Ehrenzeller said Labianco's claims about unsafe work practices are untrue. Ehrenzeller issued the following response through email:
"All work practices are done in accordance with the work area protection manual, and other VDOT standards," Ehrenzeller wrote.
TME would not comment on exactly why Labianco was fired, citing it as a personnel matter. Additionally, TME is facing charges in Chesapeake and Norfolk for illegally dumping road materials into stormwater systems.
VDOT commissioner Gregory Whirley is expected to hold a press conference soon to discuss VDOT's report on TME.
Stay tuned to WAVY News 10 and WAVY.com for updates on when this happens.
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