CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Weeks before the University of Cincinnati opened the doors on an $86 million renovation to historic Nippert Stadium, FOX19 NOW opened an investigation into a contractor working on the project.
We uncovered a stack of welding certifications that whistleblowers said have been fabricated. We also found men who welded on the project who told FOX19 NOW they should have never been allowed.
A welding certification is proof that a welder has passed basic welding qualifications to perform welds commercially. Those certifications are handed in to assure the work done on a particular project was performed by skilled, qualified
In the case of Nippert Stadium, we found at least one subcontractor who a welding certification expert tells FOX19 NOW, submitted fabricated certifications on more than a dozen welders.
'IT'S A MAJOR NONCONFORMANCE'
We obtained 14 welding certifications during our investigation into the University of Cincinnati's $86 million renovation of Nippert Stadium. The certifications were submitted by Merit Erectors, Inc., a Cincinnati-based steel work subcontractor.
We took the certifications to American Welding Society auditor, Mike Blakeman. Blakeman's job is inspecting welding certifications for compliance with AWS codes.
The AWS is recognized as the industry standard for welding certification and publishes welding codes that govern the majority of welding construction projects in the U.S.
"This is just a printed material; typed," Blakeman said as he flipped through Merit's certifications. "This is just a major nonconformance," Blakeman said.
Merit's certifications had two major problems: no identification numbers for each welder and none of the certifications were signed off on or stamped by a certified welding inspector. Both must be done, according to Blakeman.
"This is just a generic form that looks like it could be handed out to anybody," Blakeman said.
We found another problem with Merit's certifications: they included a certification for a man who died 15 months before Merit Erectors, Inc. won the job at Nippert Stadium.
DEAD WELDER AMONG THE 'BOGUS' CERTIFICATIONS
On March 4, 2015, THP Limited, Inc. recommended to Turner Construction—the general contractor in charge of the Nippert project—to hire Merit Erectors and its sister company, Avenue Fabricating for "miscellaneous" ironwork on the stadium. Part of that recommendation included a note that THP had verified Merit's certifications.
On March 11, UC records show Turner Construction accepted THP's recommendation—including Merit's welding certifications—and hired the company to perform ironwork at Nippert.
Our investigation found one of the certifications was for a Marti Moore, a man who died on Dec. 23, 2013—15 months before Turner Construction hired Merit.
"It breaks my heart," Bruce Stamper told FOX19 NOW, "Makes me angry that they would resort to these type of tactics with somebody who's passed away and not have any respect whatsoever for this man or this man's family," Stamper said.
Stamper was a foreman with Merit for 14 years before leaving work in March 2014 for a medical reason. Stamper said Merit terminated him in October 2014.
Stamper said he was "very good friends" with Moore during his employment with Merit.
Through our investigation we found Moore's grave in a cemetery just outside of Dayton. The grave marker shows Moore died in 2013. A death certificate confirms Moore's death date and shows the 40 year old died in a Butler County, Ohio hotel on Dec. 23, 2013.
UNCERTIFIED WELDERS MADE 'HUNDREDS' OF WELDS AT NIPPERT
"I tried different techniques because I wasn't sure exactly what I was doing," Adam Kinman told FOX19 NOW. Kinman was a laborer with Merit Erectors, Inc. before leaving the company July 3.
Kinman—who is not a union worker—went on strike after he said Merit did not pay him timely and did not pay him full wage. Kinman's complaints against Merit have nothing to do with welding certifications.
Kinman said he made "around 30" separate welds on the stadium project during his time with Merit. Those welds, Kinman confirmed, were on the steel framework of new restrooms on Nippert's eastside, the structural beams in the restroom's roofing and to plates in the press box and brackets that hold plate glass on the backside of the press box.
"I knew it wasn't the proper procedure," Kinman admitted to FOX19 NOW when questioned about why he welded uncertified. Kinman said he'd never taken a weld qualification test, and asked Merit multiple times to certify him to weld during his time with the company.
Kinman wasn't the only one.
Preston Cooper told FOX19 NOW he made "hundreds of welds" at Nippert while working for Merit Erectors. Cooper, who is not a certified welder, told FOX19 NOW, "I was in a lift everyday by myself welding."
Cooper is listed on Merit payroll records as an "ironworker" and paid $25 an hour.
Cooper worked alongside Chris Asbury, another Merit employee listed as an ironworker and who also claims he made "hundreds of welds" on the Nippert project. Asbury said he was also uncertified when he welded on the Nippert project.
"UC knows I was welding on it. Turner knew I was welding on it. Merit knows I was welding on it. That's what we were there to do: miscellaneous steel was all welding, nothing bolted," Asbury told FOX19 NOW.
In mid-June, Asbury and Cooper submitted sworn affidavits to UC and Turner, blowing the whistle on the welding issues at Nippert involving Merit Erectors.
On June 25, Avenue Fabricating, Inc. Senior Project Manager, Jeff Huseman, sent UC and Turner Construction a letter, responding to Cooper and Asbury's claims to have welded on the project uncertified.
Huseman wrote that Cooper was employed as a "laborer" and was only supposed to hold steel in place while "his supervisor" welded the pieces in place. Huseman admitted, it was likely Cooper performed some welding, "While it is possible that he picked up a welding rod and tacked a few of these angles in place, this was done without the knowledge of Merit Erectors upper management."
Huseman's letter went a step further in countering Asbury's claims: the company submitted what appears to be a 2012 welding certification for Chris Asbury. Huseman claimed Asbury was certified through Merit Erectors in April 2012.
"It wasn't close to the facts," Asbury told FOX19 NOW. We dug deeper to find the truth.
'THERE IS DEFINITELY A FABRICATION OF MY NAME'
"It tells me the company that's doing this is falsifying my name."
That's Jeff Jones' response to FOX19 NOW when we showed him the 14 welding certifications Merit Erectors, Inc. submitted on the Nippert project. Jones' name is typed onto each of the certifications, as is his former employer, MQS, as the inspector who validated the welding certifications.
Jones told FOX19, none of the forms are legitimate.
"I spent 39 years doing this and that's just a falsification of records in my name," Jones said. The forms are missing two key pieces of information, according to Jones: a laboratory identification number and his signature, certifying the weld sample he examined met the welding code.
We showed Jones the 2012 welding certification Merit Erectors sent UC and Turner to discredit Chris Asbury's claims he was not certified when he made welds on the Nippert project. It didn't take long before Jones determined the form was a fake.
"It's a total lie," Jones told FOX19 NOW, "I didn't sign it. I didn't work there in 2012."
We tracked down the company formerly known as MQS. MQS was sold around 2005 and sold again to a company now known as TEAM Industrial. TEAM Industrial's Human Resources Executive, Julie Snyder, confirmed Jones left the company in late 2007.
TEAM Industrial also confirmed the last time the company did any business with Merit Erectors was Feb. 24, 2006 and has not done any business with Avenue Fabricating since 2008.
"Now that it's being brought to light, I'm very upset about it. It's not right," Jones said.
Jeff Jones told FOX19 NOW he has contacted his attorney and is considering pursuing legal action against Merit Erectors and Avenue Fabricating over the certifications bearing his name.
UC: THERE'S NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT
We submitted multiple interview requests to Merit Erectors' owners Chris Koenig and Bob Nichols. Neither man responded to calls and emails seeking comment for this report.
We visited the company's Clough Pike offices on Sept. 15 and saw an employee taking pictures of our crew from inside the building. Less than a minute later, employees rolled the shop doors down.
We also asked Turner Construction for an interview, but the company would not answer whether it would provide a representative for an interview. We wanted to question the company as to how it missed the problems we uncovered regarding the welding certifications before passing those certifications along to UC.
Turner Construction never agreed to an interview, instead the company emailed a statement to FOX19 NOW, attributed to David Spaulding, Turner Construction's general manager of its Cincinnati office.
The statement read in part in regards to Merit Erectors, "the University of Cincinnati's third-party independent inspection agency inspected and validated the quality of the work performed by Merit."
The statement did not explain what Turner Construction did to verify the Merit certifications or whether it inspected the specific welds made by Merit employees.
Turner Construction contends none of Merit's work included the "primary structural framing of the stadium." The uncertified welders we interviewed for this report said they did structural welding inside parts of the tower on the west side of the stadium, the east side elevated walkway and restrooms on the east side.
The statement continued, "We stand by our work and our staff who are committed to providing the highest value and quality construction services to our clients."
Calls to Brad Saalfeld with THP Limited, Inc., the Cincinnati-based design team on the project that vetted Merit's welding certifications, were not returned.
"Our concern in this is the quality of the workmanship," UC's Vice President of Communications, Greg Vehr, told FOX19 NOW. "It was inspected and it was approved."
Vehr agreed to an interview with us on Sept. 16. Vehr said UC paid an inspection company to re-inspect the project after the initial complaint was filed in mid-June. Vehr confirmed, that inspection targeted building code compliance.
"Did the university investigate whether these certifications were—in fact valid—and if they were or were not fraudulent," FOX19 NOW's Jody Barr asked Vehr. "The prime contractor on the project was Turner Construction. Turner Construction has the responsibility for those type of matters and they're looking into it and you'll have to check with Turner," Vehr explained.
"Did the university ever order—specifically order—for the welds themselves to be inspected," Barr asked Vehr, "I can't answer the question. I don't know," Vehr replied.
We went to UC's in house project manager, tasked with overseeing the Nippert Project. That man, Bob Marton, would not agree to an interview, instead replied to question through an email exchange involving Vehr.
In the emails, Marton confirmed UC has no record of any Merit Erectors' welds being radiographically inspected. The process would show whether any of the welds made by Merit's uncertified welders met welding standards, according to the American Welding Society.
To conduct this level of inspection, it would require the university to have parts of the project stripped down to the steel framing. That could cost millions of dollars.
"Does UC have an obligation to the public, to the safety of the general public, to go back and start from ground zero and make sure these welding certifications are legitimate," Barr asked Vehr. "We had a third party come in and review the situation, review the project, make sure that all the work that was done was satisfactory. They indicated to us it was," Vehr explained.
Vehr added he believes the controversy surrounding the certifications is a battle between union and non-union entities involved in the Nippert project. Vehr did not elaborate as to how that explains welding certifications that appeared
to be fabricated.
"I can only say we've checked the information and we've also had the project reviewed and been told it's structurally sound and safe," Vehr reaffirmed.
As of this report, the University of Cincinnati has no plans to further investigate this matter.