CATS CFO Gary Owens resigns after probe into fare box money

The chief financial officer for the CATS bus system resigned Monday following an investigation into thousands of dollars of missing fare box revenue.

Bob Mirabito, Capital Area Transit System interim CEO, announced at a news conference Monday that he had accepted the resignation of CFO Gary Owens.

Owens said in an email afterward that he “certainly wasn’t involved in any theft or misappropriation of funds” but chose to resign because the buck stopped with him on financial issues at CATS.

A month ago, Mirabito told the media that he discovered money collected from buses was falling short of the amount it was supposed to be based on ridership.

Mirabito has said that a 1 percent variance, or room for error, from the money collected compared with trips taken could be expected. But the variances have ticked upward since last fall, and this year it has been off by as much as 10 percent, he said.

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.

Mirabito said at the news conference that he suspects theft, but after analyzing data and video, no single offender had been identified.

While Mirabito announced Owens’ resignation in connection with the fare box issue, he would not comment on the reasons or whether Owens was forced to resign.

Owens said in an email Monday that he had worked with the prior CEO of CATS over the past year in an attempt to identify the source of the missing fare box money issues.

Those efforts were considered to be “too little, too late,” he said.

“As custodian of the financial resources of CATS, the buck stops with the CFO,” Owens said. “I certainly wasn’t involved in any theft or misappropriation of funds, but ultimately it was my responsibility.”

Owens has been with CATS for five years during some its toughest years, enduring financial shortfalls that nearly shuttered the system.

“I have worked hard over the past five years and navigated CATS through some dire financial problems,” Owens wrote. “I unfortunately will not be part of the ‘new CATS’ in 2014, but I wish Mr. Mirabito and all my co-workers and friends on the staff much success.”

Mirabito said he hopes to hire a new CFO as soon as possible.

Mirabito said he’s also taken steps to ensure fare box revenue is securely handled and monitored going forward.

Technology associated with collections has been repaired, he said, and more cameras have been added to the money counting area. He said he’s also implemented a new policy requiring removal of money from the buses daily, rather than only on weekdays.

Going forward, Mirabito said, an audit will be issued any time collections vary more than 1 percent from ridership. He also said he’s notified the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s and State Legislative Auditor’s offices of the results of his investigation.

Mirabito also at Monday’s news conference provided an update on the process being used to hire a program manager. The program management contract will provide transit expertise to the agency as it embarks on its service improvements and expansions promised in the April 2012 tax election.

The board of directors voted last month to start the selection process over again after public outcry that the initial process was tainted.

“This will be an open process from the issuance of the (request for proposals) to membership of the selection committee, to public presentations by the vendors,” Mirabito said.

He said contract will be awarded by November or December.

CATS is also about to roll out its new routes, and will host four public meetings beginning Sept. 23 in Baker, North Baton Rouge, Mid City and South Baton Rouge.

The Metro Council will be asked to approve route changes in October.

Mirabito said some of the changes will include adding limited stop routes from the Baton Rouge Metro Airport to downtown and from Baker to downtown.

He also said the Mall of Louisiana, Cortana Mall, Town Square and former Earl K. Long Hospital will serve as new transfer points.

Mirabito, who has been at the helm for about two months, asked the public for patience as he attempts to gain their confidence.

“To those of you who have been both disappointed and frustrated by the performance of the agency over the past year, I understand your feelings,” he said. “However, we are working diligently to address what hasn’t worked and improve this system.”