Marshall’s removal sought at CATS; bus fares missing

The nonprofit, faith-based group Together Baton Rouge called for CATS Board President Isaiah Marshall’s resignation on Monday — the same day the parish bus system’s CEO disclosed a problem with unaccounted-for fare-box revenue.

About 25 members of the organization made their announcement on the steps of City Hall on Monday morning, joining a growing chorus in calling for the Metro Council to take action against the CATS board to restore the public’s trust.

“We are here to say that the leadership of our transit system has fallen far short of the excellence that we deserve,” said Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader. “We are here to call for change.”

A few hours after the nonprofit group’s news conference, Robert Mirabito, the agency’s interim chief executive officer, held one of his own to address recent controversies.

He revealed that thousands of dollars in fare-box revenues is unaccounted for but said it has not yet been determined whether it’s the result of a technical problem or theft.

“I believe that we can and will be more accountable with the public trust and, more importantly, public dollars,” Mirabito said, reading a prepared statement to the news media.

Mirabito provided reporters with documents showing the missing funds on a month-by-month basis.

“When asked, the staff has attributed it to a software issue,” Mirabito said. “This answer is not acceptable to me.”

He said he initiated an internal audit Friday to determine what happened.

Mirabito said manufacturers of the software programs used by CATS say that a 1 percent variance, or room for error, from the money collected compared with trips taken can be expected.

But since the fall, Mirabito said, the variances have ticked upward and this year they have been off by as much as 10 percent.

Fare revenues were off by 10 percent in April, which translates into $10,955 missing from CATS coffers. In May, fares were off by 7.5 percent, or $8,332, and in June they were off by 8.1 percent, or $8,391.

Gary Owens, CATS’ chief financial officer, said at the news conference that when the difference started escalating in the fall, he and then-CEO Brian Marshall started reviewing the processes where money is counted and moved from buses.

“We watched video of the money room counters, and we watched the process from the bus all the way to the cash being dumped to the money room,” Owens said.

He said he’s been working with the software company to determine if it’s a technical problem.

The announcement trumped the original intent of the news conference, which was for Mirabito to address recent controversies within the agency surrounding board actions.

In recent weeks, CATS has been under fire over two separate controversies.

Most recently, CATS board member Montrell McCaleb has been accused of using agency funds to pay some of his bills. He has since stepped down, but Marshall, who knew about the alleged misuse of funds for two months before it was reported, has been criticized for not reporting the incident to either the board or law enforcement.

The CATS board also was criticized for the selection process it was using to award a $1.5 million transit management contract. The selection committee was stacked with board members and the evaluation scores of a community representative have been criticized as unfair.

Last week, the CATS board voted to reject all proposals and start the process over.

“I want the citizens and taxpayers of Baton Rouge to know that I am committed to running an ethical transit operation,” Mirabito said. “I will continue to move to uncover any wrongdoing inside the organization and address it in a timely manner.”

Mirabito reported the use of CATS funds to pay McCaleb’s cellphone and satellite television bills to law enforcement last week, only after media reported the misuse of the funds.

On Monday, Allen Brown, an assistant legislative auditor, confirmed his office is investigating CATS, and would report any evidence of illegal activity to the district attorney.

Greg Phares, chief investigator with the Office of State Inspector General, confirmed his office also had been contacted to investigate. He said he would be contacting other law enforcement authorities to coordinate efforts.

District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he is waiting to see the results of the pending investigations.

No board members were present at Mirabito’s news conference, and Marshall did not respond Monday to a phone call and text message seeking comment.

Together Baton Rouge leaders said they were disappointed in CATS’s leadership.

The Rev. Lee Wesley, a co-founder of the nonprofit group, said Marshall’s presence on the public transit system’s board is “damaging the long-term credibility of CATS.”

Together Baton Rouge called for three steps it said are needed to restore the public’s trust in CATS and that should be implemented within the next 60 days.

Wesley said the Metro Council, which appoints and can remove CATS board members, should remove Marshall from the board.

He also said the council should implement qualification-based criteria for members of the CATS board.

Together Baton Rouge also called on the CATS board to move forward with selecting a program manager with transit management experience using a process that is “completely transparent and above suspicion.”

The CATS board had come under fire for its initial recommendation to move forward with local engineering firm SJB Group. SJB Group does not have experience in transit management, but it had proposed a subcontract with Alliance Transportation, a firm that has provided transit management for the state for several years.

“(The board) appointed a CEO who has no transportation experience at all and then they turn around and recommend — and this recommendation was done in large part from the standpoint of the board chair — they recommend a program manager who has no transit experience at all,” Wesley said. “It was just an unwise and imprudent decision.”

Hundreds of Together Baton Rouge volunteers aggressively campaigned for a 10.6-mill property tax last year, and the organization is largely credited with getting voter support in low-income parts of the parish.

“The tax would not have passed without the involvement of Together Baton Rouge, so we feel like our credibility has been compromised,” Wesley said.

Since the tax passed, the organization has graded the Capital Area Transit System on its ability to meet benchmarks showing service improvements.

Wesley said he no longer believes that CATS is capable of meeting its deadline of the first quarter of 2014 to implement the sweeping service changes and improvements it promised in the election.