CATS member charges personal expenses to agency

A Capital Area Transit System board member used $1,484 of public bus system funds to pay his phone and satellite TV bills, according to CATS financial documents obtained by The Advocate.

Montrell McCaleb, who joined the CATS board in January 2012, denied using CATS funds for personal use when contacted for comment. But he also said he is resigning effective immediately because he has “bad bronchitis” that has been exacerbated by the stress of being on the board.

CATS’ chief financial officer notified CATS board President Isaiah Marshall and CATS attorney Creighton Abadie about the misuse of funds in a May 17 email.

However, as of Thursday, no report had been filed with authorities and no disciplinary action had been taken against McCaleb.

Between February and May, CATS funds were used to pay a Verizon Wireless account bill on three occasions and a Direct TV bill twice, CATS financial records show.

The customer listed as “Montrell Henderson” in bank documents used CATS’ bank routing number to pay the bills. McCaleb’s full name is Montrell Henderson McCaleb.

On May 17, CFO Gary Owens signed statements declaring the payments from the bus system’s Whitney Bank account were unauthorized and the bank subsequently reimbursed CATS.

“Somebody is setting me up,” McCaleb said Thursday. “I am getting off the board for health reasons. But I did not take any CATS money and I have no access to CATS funds.”

McCaleb had publicly announced at a contentious CATS board meeting on Tuesday that he would not step down in light of a recent push by some Metro Council members who had called for board resignations.

He said Thursday that the pressure of serving on the board was too great and had affected his health.

Marshall said Thursday the issue of McCaleb’s cellphone and satellite TV bills being charged to CATS has been under investigation by CATS since it was reported to him two months ago.

Marshall said nothing was reported to authorities and there was no discussion of filing a police report, but that CATS officials intend to report the matter to the Louisiana Board of Ethics this week.

“Based on advice from our attorney, these are the steps I’ve been taking,” Marshall said.

Asked what the two-month investigation entailed, Marshall said both Owens and Abadie were asked to research the situation.

Abadie said when the information was brought to his attention, he initially advised CATS to investigate the matter.

“After I received additional information, I reviewed the matter and I advised Mr. Marshall to inform the board and that certain action needed to be taken,” Abadie said.

He declined to comment further, citing attorney-client privilege.

Marshall said the only people who knew of the incident involving McCaleb, besides himself, were Abadie and Owens.

Board member Dalton Honoré II, who was serving as administrative leader of CATS before new interim CEO Robert Mirabito was appointed, said he did not know the details of McCaleb’s actions.

He said Owens called him in May to tell him about “irregularities with the account” but was not aware money was misused or that a board member was involved.

Honoré said he was shocked to hear about his fellow board member.

“As much time and effort that we board members put in to try to change the system,” he said. “To hear something like this, it’s surprising and disappointing.”

At least two board members contacted for the story said they learned about McCaleb’s actions Wednesday night.

Board members Jared Loftus and Ryan Heck, also a councilman, said they informed authorities Thursday morning.

“I immediately reported this Thursday morning to the appropriate authorities and now await further instruction from the District Attorney and legislative auditor,” Loftus said in a statement.

“Because of an investigation pending at this time into this matter, I am unable to comment further today,” Heck said in a statement. “However, at an appropriate time, I will be happy to fully discuss my knowledge of this matter in detail.”

Mirabito, who has been with CATS for only a month, announced Thursday afternoon that he planned to approach the district attorney, the Board of Ethics and the Louisiana legislative auditor about the “possible improprieties.”

He added that he would ask them to do a “full blown audit of the operations of CATS to ensure that tax payers are well served by my organization.”

District Attorney Hillar Moore III declined comment for this article.

McCaleb, who runs a nonprofit group called Motivating Students for Academic and Career Success, was appointed by Marshall as chairman of CATS’ financial auditing committee several months ago.

Marshall and Honoré have been singled out by Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe, who is attempting to remove them from the board with council action for an unrelated controversy.

In recent weeks, the CATS board has been under fire over a selection process used to award a $1.5 million transit management contract.

The CATS board voted Tuesday to restart the process amid public outcry, but several members, including Marshall and Honoré, said they would not resign.

Councilman Buddy Amoroso also called for the full board to resign over the contract issue, and Mayor-President Kip Holden wrote the council an email earlier this week expressing his support for removing board members.