By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A whistleblower’s allegations about possible corruption and wasted public funds at Broward County Transit (BCT) have sparked a quiet internal county investigation that’s already led to the suspension of one ranking transit official.
The unidentified county employee’s accusations are in a 12-page whistleblower complaint filed with the county’s Office of Professional Standards in March.
Broward Bulldog has obtained a copy of the complaint that does not name the whistleblower, whose name is also protected under state law.
The most serious claim in the complaint: Two top transit officials appear to have “misled” the county commission into wrongly awarding a $13.3 million, no-bid contract last year to a North Carolina company that sells digital communications equipment for buses.
The whistleblower also told authorities that in 2007 those same officials authorized the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the company – Digital Recorders, Inc. – for an automatic bus passenger counting system (APC) that didn’t work.
The counting system was initially installed on 55 buses at a cost of $477,195, but failed a final acceptance test, according to the complaint. Nevertheless, the complaint states the officials “coerced” a transit project manager into making a $128,842.65 payment on the system from the county to Digital Recorders.
The two officials accused of mismanagement and neglect of duty in the complaint are Associate Director Rebecca Blitman and Transit Manager Lorin S. Swirsky.
“Swirsky and Blitman assumed full control of the APC project and have since paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit 98 additional buses,” the complaint says. “Today only 25 of the total 153 APC-equipped buses are reporting data, and the data is mostly unreliable.”
Blitman declined comment.
Swirsky, an information technology specialist who lives in Coral Springs, said, “I know very little about the situation that’s going on. As a result, I don’t feel as if I can say anything.”
Calls to officials at Digital Recorders office in Durham, N.C. and its publicly traded parent company, DRI Corporation in Dallas, Texas, [NASDAQ: TBUS] were not returned.
Broward transportation director Chris Walton declined comment.
The county suspended Swirsky, who works in transit offices in Pompano Beach, without pay on June 3.
An official at the Office of Professional Standards said the action was taken after investigators confirmed a claim by the whistleblower that Swirsky had lied about having a degree from the University of Miami when he was hired in 2007.
“Mr. Swirsky was placed on administrative leave pending a final resolution,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The issue we have is related to the person’s education only. There have been no other findings.”
Swirsky and Blitman remain under investigation.
“We will probably need to do a forensic analysis, and it will be at least another month before we have any more findings,” the official said. “As we have findings that have operational impact we will issue them.”
The Office of Professional Standards is responsible for investigating complaints “of malfeasance and misfeasance filed in good faith under the county’s whistleblower program,” according to the county’s web site.
State law shields the identity of employees or others who file a written whistleblower complaint. The county has a “zero tolerance” policy toward retaliation against whistleblowers.
The complaint says that after DRI was “paid in full” for its poorly performing passenger counting system, it appears as if Swirsky and Blitman “orchestrated” a $13.3 million no-bid deal for the company at county hall – and did so in a way that apparently masked what the county was actually buying.
County records show the commission voted on April 28, 2009 to modify an existing sole source contract with DRI to upgrade a bus announcement system it bought in 2002 for less than $2 million.
But according to the whistleblower, that’s not what the county really bought. Instead, those millions went for an altogether different kind of bus communications system that DRI was peddling, but had yet to deploy at any other major transit agency – an Automatic Vehicle Location/Computer Aided Dispatch system (AVL/CAD).
“Note the glaring omission (in the county’s agenda item) of any reference to an AVL/CAD system,” the whistleblower wrote. “It is most unlikely that an upgrade of this single announcement system would cost BCT over $13 million.”
The whistleblower urged investigators to determine who made that happen.
“Someone at BCT had to provide information to county purchasing personnel that formed the basis of emails and documentation provided by purchasing personnel that in turn created the mechanisms for approval by the Board of County Commissioners,” the whistleblower’s complaint said.
The bus locator and dispatch system the county purchased is now being implemented by the transit agency, the complaint says. But performance oversight has been lacking.
“The truth is, BCT employees have no idea of what the new system is supposed to do,” the complaint says.