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WMATA credit card scandal reinforces perception of waste and corruption

March 20, 2012 - 07:30 AM
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(Photo: flickr/brownpau)

WMATA's workers have not had the best week, and it's only Tuesday.

A Dec. 1 13-page Metro report, first acquired by the Post and made public last night, chronicles a recent outbreak of corruption in WMATA's planning department. The Office of Inspector General investigation uncovered several unaccounted for, personal, and unwarranted expenses on the agency's Citibank credit cards — more than $2,000 worth of gift cards, a $500 Blackberry, three camcorders valued at $730, $180 Beats By Dr. Dre earbuds, and four Kindles priced at nearly $950 overall, for starters. Numerous other questionable expenses include purchases marked as anniversary and retirement gifts and other strange, excessive costs. One staff outing cost $1,863.36 (food: $1,452, tip: $261, room use: $150). Employees used Metro credit cards to purchase eight gift baskets and six boxes of chocolates. One staff lunch of 30 employees led to a $427.80 charge at Safeway, a use of the card not sanctioned by WMATA. 71 of these items, like the chocolates, four cutting board sets, 49 gift cards, Kindles, and a digital photo album, added up to $2,795 and were intended as gifts for employees at what seemed to be an annual staff recognition event.

But these thousands of dollars of "gifts" seem excessive and well beyond what Metro authorizes its staff to spend, even considering the immensity of its $1.6 billion operating budget. How did an office's spending climb so out of control?

And how did the Office of Planning even justify the gifts? One planning official alluded to the annual retreat and suggested the items were intended as "recognition/thank you for work done by teams and individuals." This unnamed transit official with the Metro Office of Planning — planning chief Nat Bottigheimer? — later admitted to investigators that "the purchase card was poorly managed" and that "some things weren't questioned or reviewed." These other ignored purchases include, for instance, about $550 spent at Bed, Bath, & Beyond for retirement celebrations. Another Office of Planning employee spent money on multiple mysterious items, including a Priceline car rental, reading glasses, hundreds of dollars at Safeway, and a $35 picnic tote bag, costs that the employee sometimes said were purchased by mistake and sometimes ostensibly for office purposes (yet generally not for reasons approved by WMATA now). The report cites 55 incidents of "inaccurate expense description ... or no description at all" and describes "an inference of wrongdoing and deception." Metro told the Post that the two individuals responsible for the credit card abuse are no longer with Metro and in a statement, Bottigheimer says there's been "full reimbursement that made WMATA whole." Small consolation.

The D.C attorney's office has declined to prosecute these specific instances due to "the culture of purchase card abuse going on in that office by supervisors ... they all have something to hide so credibility is a real issue." A Maryland attorney's office declined for similar reasons. These higher llevel sins of negligence and credit card abuse occurred in the more professional setting of the WMATA Office of Planning, but other recent events imply a broader, more troubling corruption throughout WMATA ranks. On Monday, the duo of former transit cop and former transit technician pleaded guilty to stealing $445,000 from the agency in a scheme first revealed in late January.

Less than three months into 2012, we already see evidence of theft and negligence from sources both high and low in WMATA, which is an especially discouraging sign when the transit agency describes a budget shortfall and the need to raise Metro riders' fares. WMATA employs more than 11,000 people, and while of course there will always be a few "bad apples" (folks who are rude, unhelpful, sleepy, or incompetent), multiple scandals of waste and theft contribute to the perception of corruption and fraud that leaves more than 700,000 daily Metro riders worse off and costs public trust. These scandals demand accountability.

What a coincidence that 24 hours ago WMATA posted a new job — Assistant Manager of Cash Technologies. The new Metro position will involve "supervisory, professional, and administrative work responsible for analyzing, coordinating, recommending, and implementing electronic technologies and ensuring the effective receipt of and funded disbursement for Authority payments." He or she will "oversee the review of debit and credit receipts for accuracy" and will evaluate how the agency handles contractors. Does such an oversight position result from a growing perception of WMATA waste? Of the notion that it's not spending its funds as wisely as it should? Perhaps.

Meanwhile, WMATA yesterday released Facebook photos of maintenance and external relations staffers decorating Judiciary Square Metro station with cherry blossom stickers. The earnest hope inherent in that gesture provides a devastating contrast to the multiple Metro scandals also emerging in the news this week. Another painful contrast is the Metro unions' recent loud call for greater transportation funding. That call would be more sympathetic with the impression that Metro keeps its house in order. 

What other skeletons lurk in Metro's closet? New accountability officials and measures may, hopefully, rein in the corruption in time.

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