Emails reveal heated exchange between auditor and contractor over critical Southwest Light Rail report

Southwest Light Rail audit dispute

Southwest Light Rail audit dispute

One of the state’s top watchdogs is defending her critical evaluation of the still-unfinished Southwest Light Rail project which is now expected to cost taxpayers $2.75 billion.

Emails obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES reveal a combative exchange of words between the Office of the Legislative Auditor and the contractors constructing the controversial light rail line which is well over budget and years behind schedule.

In June, Legislative Auditor Judy Randall released a report that criticized the Metropolitan Council for failing to reign in cost overruns and not enforcing the terms of its contract with construction firm Lunda/C.S. McCrossan Joint Venture (LMJV).

Dennis Behnke, CEO of Lunda Construction, responded to that criticism with a 12-page letter to Randall earlier this month which called out the Office of the Legislative Auditor for a “lack of experience and qualifications” involving large construction projects and called the conclusions of the auditor’s report “unfounded and unjustified.” Randall fired back on Friday in an email obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

“The Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) welcomes feedback on its work that is constructive and respectful,” Randall wrote. “Your letter was neither.”

In the same email, Randall rejected criticisms of her office’s lack of experience with “design and engineering issues.”

“OLA focused its work on its area of expertise: oversight, transparency, and accountability for publicly funded programs,” Randall wrote. 

State lawmakers called for a review of Southwest Light Rail last year as the largest project in Minnesota history saw costs continue to rise and delays push back the expected opening of the rail line to 2027. 

The results of an additional financial audit of Southwest Light Rail are still expected later this year.

Former Minnesota Transportation Commissioner El Tinklenberg described the problems as “massive mismanagement.”

“It’s hard to imagine a project that is more than 50% over budget and nearly a decade late,” Tinklenberg said. 

He added that the back-and-forth between Randall and the head of the contractor can be seen as both sides defending their reputations. 

“Lunda is trying to protect itself in terms of the quality of its construction and the OLA is trying to protect itself in terms of its ability to carry out these kinds of audits and this kind of review,” Tinklenberg said. “It’s the taxpayers who end up holding the bag.”

Behnke declined an interview request from 5 INVESTIGATES but shared his latest response in a letter sent to Randall on Monday.

“If the OLA is concerned with accountability regarding how public funds are spent, then the OLA must evaluate and account for how much time and public money was lost due to design ‘issues,’” Behnke wrote.

Randall declined to publicly discuss her email to Behnke, which was also sent to eight state lawmakers.

“OLA is routinely asked to assess government oversight, transparency, and accountability in state-funded programs,” Randall said. “In light of OLA’s well-known expertise in these areas, I stand by the findings and recommendations as presented in the report.”