Bus riders press for probe of UTA

Published March 22, 2008 12:58 am
They cite earlier audit questions, but A.G. discerns no crime
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Advocates for low-income bus riders, angry over perceived favoritism for rail projects, are asking Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to investigate the Utah Transit Authority for misuse of public funds.

In a one-day review, though, Shurtleff's office declined to consider a criminal investigation. The attorney general said his office would review the complaint for any civil implications.

The complaint stems from a legislative audit released in January that questioned the level of executive bonuses and the honesty of the agency's public statements, among other things.

"The audit alleges that UTA continually used inaccurate data for more than a decade and also states, 'We remain concerned that the faulty data is still being used to justify major investments in the transit system,' " Linda Parsons of Utah Jobs with Justice wrote in her request to Shurtleff, dated Thursday. "Over four years UTA massively overstated TRAX ridership to deceptively gain public support and to qualify their executives for lucrative job performance bonuses."

The request for investigation was backed by Jobs with Justice, its Transit Riders Union and several community groups who also wrote letters, Parsons said.

While the audit performed by the office of the legislative auditor general did not assert that the faulty ridership numbers were used to perpetrate fraud, it did call the numbers troubling. UTA has acknowledged that its TRAX light-rail numbers may have been overstated by as much as 10 percent before the agency switched from manual counters to electronic sensors.

Without directly linking ridership numbers and their use to justify UTA executive bonuses, the audit said they appeared high when compared to other regional transit systems.

The audit also pointed out that since the advent of light rail in 1999, bus ridership declined from 24 million annual boardings to 21 million as of 2006. Parsons said the bus system on which many low-income and disabled people rely has suffered as UTA has "gentrified" by pushing TRAX and the upcoming opening of FrontRunner commuter rail.

Parsons equated the ridership discrepancy with lying to the Federal Transit Administration, an allegation that UTA rejected on Friday.

"UTA believes this group's claims are grossly inaccurate and unfounded," spokeswoman Carrie Bohnsack-Ware said in a written statement. "UTA has never lied to the Federal Transit Administration and enjoys a good relationship with the agency. Ridership figures reported to the FTA and to other organizations were obtained from a common, accepted transit ridership counting methodology, which was the industry standard for many years, and as soon as more accurate technology was available for obtaining ridership counts, UTA began to employ it."

Shurtleff said he has seen the audit and did not find grounds for a criminal complaint. He said an investigator in his office reached the same conclusion on Friday.

"There were no criminal allegations [by auditors] - not even close," Shurtleff said.

In a letter sent to Parsons on Friday, Shurtleff's office recommended pursuing the issue with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office if she believes there was a misappropriation of county sales tax dollars.

Jobs with Justice planned a Capitol news conference for Monday, and Parsons said Shurtleff's decision only makes that event more important.

"The attorney general's office is looking the other way on white-collar crime," she said.


Bonuses awarded

A bus riders advocacy group is asking for an investigation of UTA based on a legislative audit. Following are nonsalary bonuses awarded in 2006, according to the audit:

* General manager John Inglish:$39,860

* Regional managers Hugh Johnson, Art Bown and Dave Huber: $16,193 (average)

* Chief capital development officer Mike Allegra: $26,890

* Support services general manager Cherryl Beveridge: $22,887

* Rail service general manager Paul O'Brien: $21,745

* Chief performance officer Jerry Benson: $21,638

* Chief technology officer Clair Fiet: $20,332

* Chief communications officer Andrea Packer: $17,250

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