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“Why does government cost so much?” is a question taxpayers often ask themselves. There are many answers to that but in the case of Metrolink the response is a simple one: Lies, Big Money, Ridiculous Corruption. In recent years it has come to light that former Metrolink Chief Executive John Fenton promised select new hires that they’d still receive a handsome guaranteed cash payout if fired, or even if their duties were “significantly changed”. So regardless of how a given employee performed his or her task, they’d receive what essentially is a bonus – they could even claim that severance even if their job duties were changed! Nice racket to get into if you can! Ten of these outrageous contracts have been found, with “severances” ranging from $15,000 to $40,000.
Metrolink board members seem to be taking turns falling over themselves in shock; apparently these employment contracts were doled out without their input, much less awareness. For public agencies such as this one, typically the board members approve severance packages and said packages are typically reserved for only the highest-level executives. Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a board member, states that “To be doing that type of thing outside the prying eyes of the board is offensive and inappropriate.” Former Chief Fenton, now working in Florida for a freight-rail company (that may now wish to reconsider his qualifications), did not respond to calls seeking his response regarding this controversy. Nauseating!
Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident: Metrolink has been a model of free-spending and poor record keeping for some time now. An internal review conducted in February discovered millions of dollars in unpaid bills that the agency was unable to account for. The results of an audit questioned whether Metrolink even possessed the ability to detect accounting fraud at all. In an effort to fix its wayward ways, Metrolink brought in outside accountants to try to make sense of its finances. After approximately three weeks of going through the agency’s books (which likely resemble a Fantasy novel), an outside auditor said he was still “not comfortable” with the agency’s numbers. Perhaps all that’s known for sure is that Metrolink receives a $20 million subsidy from Orange County, something which will surely make taxpayers to do some head-scratching.
Unsurprisingly, the Orange County Transportation Authority decided to postpone any increase in said subsidy until a discussion has occurred regarding a forensic audit of Metrolink. Some OCTA directors were outright offended by Metrolink’s proposal for an additional $400,000 in employee merit raises and a system-wide 5 percent fare increase. I’m inclined to agree with that decision… why do they need a merit raise when they’ve already got those nice severances to comfort themselves with? Quite frankly, no one has earned any merit increase when their house is not in order. OCTA is demanding that Metrolink move faster on its audit and make the findings public. Metrolink claims that it wants to allow its external auditor and a financial consultant to finish their work before beginning a forensic audit. Metrolink Public Affairs Director Jeff Lustgarten threw out a bunch of words: “There’s general consensus among our board that those two processes should be allowed to take their course prior to the full-blown retention of a forensic auditing firm”. In other words, we’re slow and we’re going to be deliberately slow.
Some OCTA Directors aren’t holding Metrolink’s board blameless either. Steve Jones, also a Garden Grove city councilman, states of the board, “I’ve seen smirky, arrogant grins” and seems to believe the board is indifferent and uninterested in conducting a forensic audit. This doesn’t help the Metrolink board members’ reputations, now adding condescension and indifference to being completely aloof about their own agency’s doings. Former OCTA Director Carolyn Cavecche said of the board when it came time to review large financial dealings, “The board wasn’t asking the right questions. The board was literally making votes specifically without getting the correct information.” I’m sure I’m not alone in now wondering what exactly did Metrolink’s board do or why does it exist at all?
This is not to state that OCTA is completely blameless on this matter either. Internal Metrolink reviews have found that OCTA directors for years have consistently run into problems when making inquiries to staff members about Metrolink’s finances… rather than rapidly follow-up on the matter, the agency was apparently free to carry on with its dubious practices for some time.
Rather than share responsibility for past mistakes however, OCTA Director/ Irvine City Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway has relied on his tried and true method of noisy grandstanding. “I can’t vote to increase fares without knowing where the money is coming and going,” he blustered. He also hammered new Metrolink CEO Michael DePallo, demanding that he clean out any Metrolink staffers who may have been responsible for mismanaging finances. Lalloway blared, “For me this is a people problem. There are folks there that are either incompetent or unwilling to perform the tasks… I hear you reassigning people into these departments; I don’t hear that you’re reassigning people out.” Never mind that DePallo was brought in just two months ago, has already ousted three former financial officers and has created a comprehensive action plan to reorganize the agency financially, Lalloway saw an opportunity to toot his own horn and couldn’t refuse. It appears Lalloway has DePallo confused with the disgraced John Fenton, on whom Lalloway was apparently silent about for years.
In time Metrolink may become an efficient, competently-run agency free of fraud and waste. Taxpayers deserve that and certainly haven’t been getting that for years. A lot of corruption apparently still needs to be rooted out and the sheer amount of financial frivolity leads one to wonder how many other public agencies are tainted in similar ways. With government spending on all levels as high as ever, we simply can’t afford any more corruption, much less tolerate any.