By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Two Broward transit workers fired last month for payroll fraud were allegedly part of a scheme last June to help county transit officials hide buses from auditors of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
An anonymous county worker tipped federal officials to a bus cover-up on Jan. 28, shortly after the county auditor’s office announced it had determined that Transit Superintendent Jeffrey Scott had wrongly altered timekeeping records for multiple employees, including Clifford Combs, resulting in excess pay for hours not worked, including overtime. Florida Bulldog obtained a printout of the tip that was made on a fraud hotline.
The federal Office of Personnel Management relayed the tip to county officials a week before Scott and Combs were terminated on Feb. 13, following additional investigation by County Administrator Bertha Henry. News of that possible motive behind the fraud involving Broward Transit officials, however, was never made public.
The county’s office of Professional Standards and the auditor’s office are now investigating.
Professional Standards, which received the tip from the Broward Inspector General’s office, is responsible for ensuring that county agencies and employees comply with county policies, procedures and ordinances and federal and state laws. Section boss Priscilla Coq did not return phone messages over several days seeking comment.
Here’s what Deputy Inspector General Michael Mee said in a Feb. 19 letter transferring the matter to Professional Standards.
“The Broward Office of the Inspector General (OIG) received an anonymous tip alleging misconduct within Broward County Transit, to include bus operators being paid overtime in June 2018 to drive buses to Fleet Services on Blount Road in order to hide the buses from auditors from the United States Department of Transportation,” Mee wrote.
County Auditor reviewing
Independent County Auditor Bob Melton said in a Friday interview that his office recently got its own tip about the bus cover-up directly from an anonymous caller and is looking into it.
“The situation of hiding buses is an allegation we did receive and are currently reviewing,” Melton said. “From our standpoint, that situation was not related to the overtime situation. We are nowhere near issuing a report on that.” He did not elaborate.
Broward Transportation Director Chris Walton did not respond to questions emailed on Friday. A spokeswoman explained Tuesday afternoon that he was very busy and did not have time to answer before deadline.
Why would Broward County Transit (BCT) want to keep federal auditors away from its buses?
Federal grants pay 100 percent of the cost for buses that the county and many other local governments purchase. [Local funds, fare revenues and state and federal funds – in that order – provide the bulk of transit’s operating funds, according to U.S. DOT statistics.] Funds are apportioned by formulas based on population, transit ridership, the number of passenger miles traveled and other data.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) handles oversight, requiring evaluations and independent audits to determine whether recipients like Broward County have met program requirements and are in compliance with federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“FTA may reduce or withdraw financial assistance as a result of review findings or withhold further grants until the grantee comes into compliance,” the agency warns in a circular about its bus grant program.
A problematic counting system
Knowledgeable county insiders point to the long-troubled automatic bus passenger counting (APC) system as one costly apparatus that Broward County Transit may not be keen on having scrutinized.
Nine years ago, BCT was roiled by a whistleblower’s allegations of corruption and wasted public funds regarding the award of a multi-million dollar no-bid contract to a North Carolina company, Digital Recorders, Inc. (DRI), that sold communications equipment for buses. The whistleblower also told authorities that transit officials authorized the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to DRI for an automatic bus passenger counting system that didn’t work. The counters were installed on more than 150 buses – about half the fleet.
The allegations triggered at least two investigations by Professional Standards. The first looked at the initial 55 county buses with APCs. The units cost more than $470,000 to install, yet failed a final acceptance test. The second inquiry focused on another 98 buses with the APC system, but most of them weren’t reporting data either, the whistleblower’s complaint said.
Florida Bulldog unsuccessfully sought access to files of those investigations sporadically for years – and was repeatedly told they were not available for public inspection because inquiries were continuing. At one point, the documents were said to have been transferred to the Broward Inspector General’s Office while it investigated. In late January 2019, however, Professional Standards granted access. Missing from the files were the final reports of the investigators, and, apparently, numerous supporting documents.
Copies of emails contained in the file, however, provide some background about the investigation.
A boss without answers
Most noteworthy were Transit chief Chris Walton’s responses to questions posed by Professional Standards investigator A. Joy Stewart. Walton repeatedly said he didn’t know the answers and could provide no requested documentation , sometimes referring Stewart to underlings.
“Typically, as Department Director, I am not involved in the detail information that you are looking for,” he wrote to Stewart in August 2011. Walton apparently made no effort to obtain answers to the investigator’s questions.
That same month, Maurice “Skip” Gill, BCT’s information systems manager, told Stewart that 161 fixed route buses had automatic passenger counters installed and that about 125 were downloading daily data to the APC server. Stewart asked Gill what percentage of that data was accurate. Gill vouched for the system, saying that when everything was working correctly “the data appears to be accurate.” More telling, however, was Gill’s acknowledgement that none of the county’s APC data had been certified as accurate and that it was not used when reporting data to the National Transit Database.
Another BCT official, Harold Tutt, provided Stewart with a brief history of the county’s use of automatic passenger counters. “Installation of APC began in 2006 with DRI (Digital Recorders Inc.). DRI used INFODEV as their subcontractor. Early contracts specified DRI only. Later purchases were specified as INFODEV to ensure consistency within the fleet,” Tutt wrote. INFODEV EDI is a Canadian company that develops and installs passenger and people counters.
Investigator Stewart, a lawyer, is currently senior counsel for Broward’s transit department. She said Tuesday that she no longer recalls the details of her 2011-2012 investigation.
Records show that in 2014, the county commission in a 9-0 vote awarded a $12.5 million, seven-year deal to Baltimore-based Integrated Systems Research Corporation (ISR) for a computer-aided dispatch/Automatic Vehicle Locator System to manage its bus fleet. That included interfacing with existing onboard systems like the APC, from which it would upload data that could be provided to federal overseers. The project was 100 percent federally-funded.
But sources say the APC still does not work properly, with transit officials sometimes requiring workers to sit on buses for hours and manually count passengers.
It is against that backdrop that the county commission voted last month go out for bids again in search of new automatic passenger counters “which will enable Transit Division to effectively collect ridership data and related reports.” The bid period opened Feb. 13. Five prospective bidders, including a representative of ISR, appeared at a Feb. 28 pre-bid meeting along with a half-dozen county officials. But bidding was shut down early on March 6 without explanation.
According to bid documents, Broward has 352 buses in its fleet and transit officials want to install APCs on 140 buses, with an option for an additional 30 buses. Once again, Uncle Sam will pay 100 percent of the estimated cost of $750,000.
Commissioners voted 9-0 to go out to bid without hearing any public explanation from transit officials as to why new APCs are needed and how existing APCs have performed. The commissioners asked no questions.