CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Stewart Noon had no idea on April 19 that he'd taken the first steps to becoming a certified welder. In fact, as far as anyone could tell, Stewart had no interest in becoming a welder in the first place.
Meanwhile, a group of welders inside the District 44 Iron Workers union headquarters had finished off a welding sample, placed Stewart Noon's name on it and submitted it for testing. All in an attempt to have Stewart Noon certified as a welder.
There's one obvious problem with this: Stewart Noon is a cat. And cats don't weld.
WHY WE INVESTIGATED THIS
Last fall, we launched an investigation into welding certifications at the University of Cincinnati. We received multiple tips alleging faked welding certifications were used by Merit Erectors - a Cincinnati-based steel erection company - in order to perform welding work on the newly-renovated Nippert Stadium.
Our investigation found the welding certifications were not in compliance with the American Welding Society's codes. The AWS code is the industry standard used in the structural steel construction industry. The AWS's process of certification provides proof a welder possesses the skills needed to perform welds, reducing the chances of a weld failing.
Last fall, the company named on the UC certifications confirmed to FOX19 NOW the certifications were not legitimate. Plus, the weld inspector named on the forms said the records were fraudulent and that he'd never certified any of the people named on them.
Following that investigation, we decided to scrutinize the welding certification process. We wanted to know if the rules governing the process were enough to ensure people welding on taxpayer-funded construction projects are truly the ones named on the certifications.
TESTING THE PROCESS
Structural welding is one of the most skilled trades in the construction industry. Most publicly-funded construction projects require welders and weld inspections to be done to the AWS codes governing steel construction.
This requirement is often written into bid documents and construction contracts on public projects. Our analysis of welding certifications used at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Kentucky and Miami University shows the codes isn't always adhered to by hired contractors.
Following our UC Nippert investigation, we learned the Iron Workers Local 44 union in Cincinnati had successfully gotten a dog certified to weld in August 2015. That's the second time a dog was certified, according to the union.
The first happened in Michigan following an investigation by the Worker's Freedom Coalition, a group that started investigating welding certifications following the collapse of a Kentucky high school's gym in May 2011.
The gym was under construction when the steel framing collapsed one Sunday morning. The WFC decided to test the welding certification process, using the same testing facility the steel erection contractor used in the Kentucky collapse case, WFC documents show.
In March 2014, the WFC provided records showing they'd successfully gotten a welding certification in the name of Henry Wolf… Henry Wolf is a dog.
This was done in an attempt to expose a loophole in the certification process to show how easy it is for welding certifications to be awarded and how in many cases, there are no checks to verify the person named on the certification is the one who actually performed the welds made on the test plates.
CERTIFYING HOUSE PETS
We met with Jim Hyden, an American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector, on April 19 to have him walk us through the welding certification process. Hyden's work with the AWS requires him to know – and adhere to – the codes surrounding the certification process.
The process starts with two pieces of steel plate and the welding certification candidate must weld them together. The plates will later be cut apart and analyzed by a testing laboratory to make sure the welds fused the two pieces of metal together.
In this experiment, Hyden knew he was breaking the code.
"We're doing this to prove a point," Hydeon told FOX19 Investigative Reporter Jody Barr, "Without somebody there verifying the position, the fit up and all of that, it doesn't matter how they're (weld plates) done if they're dropping them off at someplace that's not verifying every step of the process."
In February, the union's investigator successfully got another welding certification in the name of a dog. Records provided to FOX19 NOW shows a certification for "Robert Dash," - a dog belonging to a member of the union. The certification is from a Mishawaka, Indiana inspection company, Jimona, Inc.
In that case, Jim Reilly whose brother owns the testing facility, admitted to FOX19 NOW that he did not follow the ASW code in certifying Robert Dash on Feb. 19, 2016.
Hyden's organization is also investigating allegations that some welding contractors are obtaining weld certification samples fraudulently. They're doing so, according to the union, by having a talented welder perform the weld plate certification for candidates who couldn't pass the test, otherwise.
After finishing the plate welding on April 19, Hyden handed it off to a man the organization is using to submit samples at testing facilities across the Tri-State. This man was successful in getting a dog certified to weld at an Indiana testing facility in March.
That afternoon, we followed the source to Acuren, an engineering and testing lab in Cincinnati. Acuren is the weld test facility listed on the latest welder certification forms submitted by Merit Erectors on multiple public construction projects in the Cincinnati area.
Merit Erectors was the contractor at the center of allegations of faked welding certifications from the UC Nippert Stadium project.
GOING INSIDE THE TEST FACILITY
On April 19, outfitted with a hidden camera, our source walked into Acuren to drop off the weld plates. The video shows the source handing the plate over to a woman in the office, then provides her with the name, date of birth, social security number and the fake welding company name.
"I'm assuming you need the guy's name and social and stuff," the source asked the Acuren employee. "Probably," the worker responded.
The video showed the Acuren employee never asked for identification or records that would certify the person who welded the plate was the person whose name would end up on the certification. Had the AWS code been followed, Jim Hyden told FOX19 NOW, the test facility would have requested that information from the source before accepting the sample for testing, as spelled out in the AWS code.
The video shows the Acuren staffer taking the plate and telling the source she'd get it to the person who would perform the test.
It would take one week before the Acuren called our source, telling him the weld plate passed inspection.
On April 26, we went back to Acuren to watch as our source went inside to collect documents related to the weld test. Wearing a hidden camera again, the source spent nearly an hour inside with an Acuren manager, after collecting test documents listing Stewart Noon as the person who welded the test plates.
The Acuren documents also show the test was performed in accordance with the AWS D1. 1 code. Jim Hyden said, that's impossible because Acuren had nothing to verify the welder information provided by the person who submitted the test plate.
"Unless they do a fingerprint check," Hyden said. "Once it leaves my hands, I don't know where it's going, who's got it or whatever."
A search of the American Welding Society's accredited testing facility database shows Acuren's Cincinnati location is not an accredited by the AWS. Hyden said, the process ordered in the code would have been required to be followed had Acuren been accredited.
Had the test facility been AWS accredited, a cat's name would not have ended up on a weld qualification test record, Hyden said.
'PEOPLE COULD CHEAT THIS STUFF ALL THE TIME'
The hidden camera video from the April 26 trip to Acuren runs more than 55 minutes. It shows exactly what happened from the time our source walked in the door, discussed the testing process, then left.
The man who signed off on the testing documents is Shawn Geckeler. The records show Geckeler is Acuren's Mechanical Division Manager, based out of the Cincinnati office.
"Here's your coupons," Geckeler is seen on video telling the source as he hands back the weld plate submitted for testing. "Here's all the information we had. Hopefully, it's accurate," Geckeler said in the recording.
The men begin discussing the forms provided by Acuren. The source questions Geckeler about why an AWS welder certification form wasn't included and Geckeler informs him since no one at Acuren watched the welding process, the company couldn't verify the information given to them by the source.
"A lot of times we don't get this information to fill out this form," Geckeler said on the recording, "So, what we do is just write a report saying here's the coupon we got, here's the guy we've been told welded it and this position - if we have the material or the WPS number – usually we put it on the report. That's what bothers me - this guy, we didn't do that," Geckeler is recorded saying.
The test records provided to the source by Acuren shows a "Welder and Welding Operator Qualification Test Record" filled out by Geckeler, indicating the weld plates were tested with a "satisfactory" result. The form shows the testing was performed to the AWS D1. 1 code, but the form is not signed off by Acuren.
The line titled "Test witnessed by" is left unsigned.
"People could cheat this stuff all the time," Geckeler said on the recording, "Because we're taking your word for it."
"We took your word for it, so we would write down whatever you say it is. That's what we're going to put on our report. We're not going to – you know – because all it's going to do is create a problem for us," Geckeler is heard telling our source on the recording.
"We're not the ones signing this saying you really did what you're saying you're doing. The only thing we're saying is the report saying we tested it in accordance to the D1. 1 and these are the results we got," Geckeler said in the April 26 meeting.
During the hour-long meeting, Geckeler acknowledged it's possible for contractors to do exactly what our source was doing: cheating the system by getting someone certified to weld when they never actually performed the welds being tested.
"You know, Dan Robertson is really a suck welder and you got a Joe that is like a rocket welder. Well, you have Joe weld everybody's test coupons, I don't know. I didn't go watch them. I'm just saying people do it," Geckeler said, describing a scenario that could take place.
"I'm not saying you guys would."
Later that day, we tried to interview Mike Ross. He's the man in charge of Acuren's Cincinnati office. We left a business card and message for Ross with a woman in the office at Acuren.
Ross never returned our call.
The next day, we emailed Shawn Geckeler on his Acuren email address on his business card. We emailed to ask him for an interview. Geckeler never responded.
On April 28, we met Geckeler as he left work to ask him about the company's AWS testing process and why Acuren never worked to verify the information provided by the iron workers' confidential informant.
"How are you doing, Mr. Geckeler," Investigative Reporter Jody Barr said as Geckeler walked to his truck. "I sent you an email, I don't know if you saw it," Barr said.
"I'm not Mr. Geckeler," Geckeler said as he opened the door of his truck.
"We want to talk to you about this certification for Stewart Noon," Barr said. Shawn Geckeler closed his door and drove away without comment.
"All we are is a test facility," Frank Millvale told FOX19 NOW in an April 27 phone call. Millvale identified himself as Acuren's Director of Operations and called from an Anchorage, Alaska cell phone.
"We only provide results on test material. We don't certify welders," Millvale said in the phone call. Millvale's call came after we interviewed Shawn Geckeler in the firm's Cincinnati office's parking lot the day before.
Millvale said Acuren doesn't provide welder qualification forms and didn't in this case. The recording inside the Cincinnati office on April 26 showed Acuren's Shawn Geckeler did fill out an AWS certification form for Stewart Noon, "I can fill one of these out real quick. It'll only take a second," Geckeler is recorded telling the source on the April 26 recording.
Geckeler would not sign it, telling our source since he did not witness the welding, the welder's employer would be the one to sign the form.
Not witnessing the welding doesn't excuse Acuren, according to Jim Hyden, the union's Certified Welding Inspector. The AWS code still wasn't followed, Hyden said, because the weld plate sample was tested without written confirmation from a CWI that the welding portion of the certification was followed to code.
Testing a sample to the AWS code would be impossible at that point, Hyden said, because you can't perform an accurate test without knowing whether the first steps were followed.
We asked Millvale what steps his company took to verify the information provided to them in the Stewart Noon case, which Millvale did not provide an answer.
We requested an interview with someone from the company. Millvale refused, telling FOX19 NOW, "We won't be doing any interviews."
A LAW TO CLOSE THE LOOPHOLE
"The whole process is flawed. We can send money in and get anyone certified," Iron Workers District Council of Southern Ohio and Vicinity President Bill Woodward told FOX19 NOW, "Anyone, if they pay, can go out and get welding certifications."
Woodward is working with some Ohio lawmakers to have a law passed requiring welding contractors and testing facilities to follow the American Welding Society code. That code governs most all commercial welding performed in the United States and is recognized as the industry standard.
House staffers are currently working on writing the proposed legislation, according to emailed conversations shown to FOX19 NOW last week. As of this report, the legislation has not been filed.
A welding law, Woodward hopes, would provide punishment for contractors and testing facilities who do not follow the AWS code on projects that are funded with tax dollars.
"It puts the general public at risk," Woodward said, "They don't know who's welding on the job.
"It's like gluing something together. If the glue doesn't hold, it's going to fall down," Woodward told FOX19 NOW in an interview last week.