Feds Subpoena Documents From Maker of Suspect Guardrails

Criminal investigation of Trinity Industries broadens.

— -- Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed 16 years-worth of documents from the maker of a controversial highway guardrail system blamed by accident victims for a series of serious injuries and deaths.

The company said prosecutors wanted documents from 1999 to the present “relating to the ET 2000 and ET Plus guardrail end-terminal products.”

Safety advocates and car accident victims say the company created a serious safety hazard when it secretly altered the dimensions of its guardrails which they say was done to save a few dollars.

The company says in its SEC filing that it intends to fully cooperate with the investigation. The company also said it is aware of several class action civil lawsuits over the guardrail system. It said the lawsuits were without merit and that the company planned to vigorously defend its actions.

Before this week’s action by federal prosecutors, people familiar with the case said the investigation was focusing, in part, on whether any state or federal highway officials received payments from Trinity to approve the use of the controversial guardrail systems.

In addition to information provided by sources familiar with the investigation, internal Federal Highway Administration emails released to ABC News through the Freedom of Information Act show that agents from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General –- tasked with investigating fraud, waste and abuse within DOT agencies -– had been observing controversial crash tests conducted on the ET-Plus in December and January, though their presence was not publicized.

One email from an FHWA official to a Trinity representative before one of the crash tests conducted in San Antonio, Texas notes, “We won’t have the OIG folks this week,” though the officials had been present previously. Official observer lists compiled and released by FHWA show two representatives from DOT attended a crash test, although their titles were not included on the list, as other observers’ were.

One of those DOT representatives present at one December crash test has been involved in the current federal investigation, according to individuals with knowledge of the federal probe.

The government ordered the eight crash tests after Trinity was found by a federal jury late last year to have committed fraud when it modified the ET-Plus guardrail’s end terminal in 2005 but failed to tell state or federal officials about the change at the time. Trinity said it plans to appeal the decision.

Prior to the new crash test results, 42 states had frozen installation of new ET-Plus guardrails pending the results.

Accident victims and critics say the modified guardrail end terminal can malfunction when struck from the front, sending pieces of metal through the car and potentially killing or dismembering its occupants.

In mid-March, FHWA officials announced that the ET-Plus had passed all eight tests, which would allow it to remain eligible to be used on American highways. At the time, Trinity spokesman Jeff Eller said the test results vindicated the company’s long-standing position that its product is safe and performs as intended.

But controversy continued to swirl around the eighth and final test, which critics called a “clear” failure. In that particular test, upon impact, the small test vehicle appeared to be severely damaged on the driver’s side after striking the guardrail. The government’s passing grade of that test spurred outrage in Congress.

That final test also fueled questions about transparency and integrity of the crash tests, as well as the relationship between FHWA and Trinity Industries, which Blumenthal called “all too cozy.”

In March, six U.S. Senators urged the Government Accountability Office to investigate FHWA following what they called “troubling developments regarding the FHWA’s evaluation of defective ET-Plus guardrail and end terminals.”

Trinity declined to comment for this report.