SANTA FE (KRQE) – They supplied substandard construction materials, submitted altered invoices and committed payroll violations. Now a landscaping company is part of a Department of Transportation investigation involving lucrative highway construction projects.
“We will put them out of business if we have to,” Department of Transportation Cabinet Secretary Tom Church said. “New Mexico taxpayers can’t afford to be paying for things they are not getting in return for the services. We will not tolerate or accept that type of work.”
In the last four years, landscape sub-contractor Caldon Seeding and Reclamation has worked on 28 highway department re-vegetation projects.
Every time the state builds a new bridge or improves a highway, the contractor is required by law to restore the landscape to its original appearance. Landscape contractors are hired to reclaim land disturbed in a construction zone. Compost is rototilled, the area is re-seeded and straw holds in moisture.
“It’s typically the last thing that’s done on a job,” Department of Transportation Landscape Architect Bill Hutchinson said. “[The] project is completed, everything else is out of the way and the re-vegetation occurs.”
Hutchinson says all materials that go into re-vegetation projects must meet rigorous state specifications. He says the products need to be certified and must come from an approved source.
“Our inspectors examine the materials and they count the materials that go into the job,” Hutchinson said.
Because landscape restoration is a highly specialized industry, only five New Mexico contractors have the technical expertise to do the work. Since 2012 there have been 58 statewide re-vegetation projects. Twenty-eight of those contracts were awarded to Caldon Seeding and Reclamation as the sub-contractor on the job.
For example, three years ago DOT awarded Caldon a $714,000 contract to renovate 43 acres along a stretch of newly constructed highway in San Juan County.
On-site state inspectors approved the work. However, it wasn’t until almost a year later that the DOT learned Caldon had apparently cheated on the contract.
“The sub-contractor had shorted us material in the project,” Church said. “They had not done proper wage rate payments and they had falsified documentation.”
The DOT contract called for Caldon to apply 30,000 pounds of Sustane fertilizer on the San Juan County project. However, according to investigators, Caldon shorted the state by at least 10,000 pounds of Sustane.
It’s not just fertilizer. Among the documents Caldon submitted to the DOT was an invoice for compost mulch. However, it was later learned the document was falsified. As a result, the DOT cannot account for about $26,000 worth of high-grade landscaping materials.
Caldon was also awarded $137,000 to re-vegetate 21 acres for a 2013 project in Dona Ana County along I-10.
According to the contract, Caldon was required to use a specialized blend of compost for the project. The DOT requires certified products that meet stringent specifications.
However, an invoice Caldon supplied to the state purportedly indicates the landscaping firm delivered a truck load of compost to the Las Cruces work site. However, a KRQE News 13 investigation found Caldon’s delivery truck was not carrying compost. Documents show on March 21, 2013, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority sold Caldon 24 tons of inexpensive woodchips. It was a truck load of wood chips, not certified compost mulch, that was delivered to Las Cruces.
It is unknown if the discrepancy was a mistake or if it was intentional.
When asked can a re-seeding contractor substitute wood chips for compost mulch Hutchinson said, “It’s not acceptable that’s why it has to be composted material.”
This was not Caldon’s only infraction. According to a New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions investigation, Caldon repeatedly failed to pay its employees proper wages.
“They were claiming to pay people more than they were paying them…That’s a violation of federal and state law,” Church said.
Even though on site state inspectors are supposed to oversee and approve contractor compliance, nobody at the DOT noticed until years later that Caldon may have been cheating on re-seeding contracts.
When asked why the industry is so difficult to police Hutchinson says he doesn’t have the answer.
“I have talked with colleagues in adjacent states. Every DOT seems to struggle with this,” Hutchinson said. “It’s not concrete, it’s not asphalt, it’s not guardrail…it’s a whole different trade if you will. It’s more the landscape industry and it seems to defy control on some level.”
Earlier this year the DOT launched an investigation into landscape restoration contracts. Following that probe, the department questioned Caldon Seeding’s business integrity and honesty.
“We are putting this contractor on suspension. They have due process, which they will go through a hearing in which case we may debar them.” Church said.
The DOT is proposing a three month suspension of Caldon Seeding from participation in DOT contracts.
An administrative hearing on the allegations was held last week.
An executive with the firm, Richie Caldon, admitted to making mistakes in employee wages. He said, Caldon did have payroll problems and says they have been fixed.
As for the altered document, Caldon admitted to “an error in judgment” and said it “does look bad.”
Richie Caldon denies substituting wood chips for compost at the 2013 Las Cruces project.
Secretary Church says the DOT has a continuing investigation relating to Caldon Seeding and Reclamation.