I-Team exclusive: More questionable expenditures at RTA

CLEVELAND - Abuse of RTA's para-transit  system by some employees was more widespread then previously  reported - a fact that surprised a senior RTA executive when the I-Team asked about it.

In 2016, FOX 8 reported  that three RTA employees were charged for giving  unauthorized rides on the para-transit system - a system  whose primary purpose is to allow people with disabilities to access public transit more easily.

Since that initial report, the FOX 8 I-Team has obtained internal, confidential  RTA documents which show that the problem concerned more  then just those three people.

The documents say, in  part: "...other Paratransit (sic) Dispatchers...scheduled  hundreds of rides for family and friends."

Later in the same  paragraph, RTA's Internal Audit Department wrote: "We  estimate the cost or the rides provided to family and  friends is $117,563."

"It literally just breaks my heart," said Marvin Randalson, a transportation advocate with "All Aboard Ohio" who grew up riding RTA.

After reviewing the documents, Randalson said, "I'm really frustrated at the inability of RTA and their Board to run a high-quality  system free of scandal, I guess you could call it."

Dr. Flonsay Caver was  promoted to Chief Operating Officer at RTA last October, a  position he told us that makes him "responsible for all of  the service provided at RTA, which includes the bus, rail,  and para-transit services."

Dr. Caver told us that  RTA conducted an investigation into the para-transit abuse after employees reported it in 2015.

"Three of our employees  were terminated for providing rides that were not sanctioned  under the ADA (American with Disabilities Act)," he said.  When we asked if a further investigation showed that the problem was more widespread then just those three people, Dr Caver said,

"No....The FBI indicted three individuals, and those  individuals plead guilty for it."

We then showed Dr. Caver  the internal RTA documents that indicated the problem was,  indeed, more widespread.     After reading the  documents, he said, "so I do have it here, I do see this  here, but I have not seen this audit."

Dr. Caver said he was unaware that more then three people were involved in the para-transit abuse.

"I'm  not able to  address the broader problem, but I am able to address that there were three individuals who were indicted by the FBI  and the prosecutor," he said.

A few days later, RTA  sent us a follow-up email, which said in part:  The FBI decided to investigate the "ring-leaders" and those three plead guilty in 2016; - The total loss was just over  $120,000; Over a   twelve-year period, there were  over 2,200 unauthorized rides;  - During that time, RTA provided over  seven million para-transit rides, and no riders were denied  service because of the abuse.

RTA describe trying to  find the fraud as "like trying to find a needle in a  haystack."

The agency did say it has  a new system to try and search for possible fraud , "An example would be patterns of individuals who have not taken trips in a certain time-frame," Dr Caver says, "so... (the new system)  allows us to key in and find out why aren't these  individuals taking trips."

Dr. Caver confirmed what  the internal documents say: that one person who committed  para-transit fraud was able to use a customer account "to  book trips for 14 months after the customer died."

The information in the  internal documents led Marvin Randalson to call for some  action.

"A complete management  audit of RTA is necessary at this time to ensure that  everyone is doing their jobs properly," he says, "and that  the proper controls are in place to ensure that public  dollars are being spent properly."

Just two days ago, the  RTA Board voted to draft a proposals for a putting a  possible tax hike before voters this November - either a  sales tax increase or a property tax hike.

The Board also announced  that the longtime CEO of RTA, Joe Calabrese, will be leaving  his current post in September, which is sooner then previously announced. Calabrese will stay on with RTA as a  consultant for an additional 18 months.

The news that the  para-transit abuse was more widespread then previously reported marks the third time this year that the way RTA  spends its money has come under scrutiny.

In March, the I-Team  revealed that RTA's own auditors questioned over $1.8  million dollars in prescription drug payments made by the  agency.   Those payments included spending over $1.5 million dollars on 103 containers of the nasal  spray Flonase - an average of over $14,000 apiece.

RTA later said it was the  victim of a nationwide insurance scam .   The Cuyahoga County  Prosecutor's Office investigated the issues surrounding the large prescription payments, but declined to charge any bus  drivers, citing "insufficient evidence of intent to defraud  by the employees."

The U.S. Attorney's  Office will neither confirm or deny whether a federal investigation exists into the prescription drug payments..    Then, less then a month after the I-Team report into prescription insurance  payments, RTA's longtime Board Chairman, George Dixon,  suddenly resigned over a different insurance issue.

There, an audit showed that Dixon had improperly received health insurance benefits for 24 years totaling over $1 million dollars.

At a news conference,  RTA Board Member Georgine Welo, the mayor of South Euclid, said, "The Board is committed to the taxpayer to make sure  this never happens again."

RTA is facing difficult  financial times. Ridership is down, and state funding is being cut. Public transit advocate  Marvin Randalson says voters must have faith in RTA before they may agree to a tax increase.

"They have to make those  changes that are necessary to restore that faith," Randalson  says, "(and) if that requires major shakeups in management or major changes as to how they do business, they have to do it. "Whatever it is," Randalson adds, "they have to get to that place where the voters feel like they can support public transit again."