A manufacturer of bridge parts pleaded guilty today to aggravated identification theft and making false statements concerning highway projects after local investigators noticed that more than 1,000 bridge parts he shipped from Chicago to North Carolina were defective. In some instances, the defective parts have already been installed underneath state bridges, setting up a $5 million replacement project, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina has announced.
Joel De La Torre, 33, of Chicago, evidently used the identification of an unsuspecting teenager to forge the application his company used to ship defective bridge parts to local North Carolina contractors.
Although North Carolina drivers are not in immediate danger, the defective bearings could, over time, fail and cause damage to the bridges, said a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office
An “elastomeric” bridge bearing is a slab of steel and rubber. It is placed underneath a bridge to help it absorb shock. In October of 2011, a federal highway contractor discovered a defect in a group of elastomeric bearings shipped in the previous two years. The steel plates were exposed, subjecting them to the elements and creating the potential for deterioration.
A state Department of Transportation investigation ultimately revealed 1,270 defective bearings, earmarked for 25 highway projects. Some of the defective bearings had already been installed on bridges across the state. Investigators learned that the bearings came from a Chicago company named Delgado Elastomeric Bearings Corporation.
De La Torre forged the application used to supply bearings to local contractors, and also forged certificates that suggested the bearings conformed with state and federal regulations. On the paperwork, De La Torre used the identity of a teenager with no knowledge of bridge-bearing manufacturing, according to federal authorities. The teen was falsely listed by Delgado as the vice president of the company.
De La Torre’s sentencing is scheduled for July. He faces a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000.