Law­suit al­leges self-deal­ing in MetroAc­cess con­tracts

Plain­tiff claims dis­patch work was di­verted to firm that as­signed trips to ser­vice it owns

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY FAIZ SID­DIQUI faiz.sid­diqui@wash­post.com

A re­cently un­sealed law­suit al­leges that MetroAc­cess and MetroAc­cess con­trac­tors steered tax­payer-funded para­tran­sit ser­vice to fa­vored firms and sub­con­trac­tors, re­sult­ing in longer trips and more ex­pen­sive rides for the re­gion’s most vul­ner­a­ble com­muters.

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Green­belt by the owner of a Mary­land cab com­pany, plain­tiff Scott Bret­ner al­leges that Metro and three of its con­trac­tors broke the law by shift­ing MetroAc­cess dis­patch re­spon­si­bil­i­ties from one con­trac­tor, MV Trans­porta­tion, to an­other, Trans­dev North Amer­ica.

The suit al­leges that this led to a pat­tern of “self-deal­ing” in which Trans­dev would as­sign taxi trips to a ser­vice it owns and in other cases di­rect pas­sen­gers to MetroAc­cess vans un­nec­es­sar­ily for its own fi­nan­cial ben­e­fit.

“Trans­dev is steer­ing rid­ers to use the vans un­nec­es­sar­ily, pre­sum­ably to in­flate its rev­enues, not­with­stand­ing that vans of­ten must travel from dis­tant points in­clud­ing Vir­ginia to serve rid­ers in Prince Ge­orge’s County,” the com­plaint reads.

MetroAc­cess is the tran­sit agency’s door-to-door ser­vice for the el­derly and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. The con­tract splits dis­patch and ser­vice de­liv­ery re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to pre­vent the kind of con­flict Bret­ner al­leges. Trans­dev is re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing 50 per­cent of MetroAc­cess ser­vice, and the re­main­ing share of trips is to be di­vided be­tween two other firms not named in the suit, ac­cord­ing to the con­tract.

Fur­ther, the suit al­leges that a third con­trac­tor, Med­i­cal Trans­porta­tion Man­age­ment, the com­pany con­tracted to over­see MetroAc­cess, failed to bring the al­leged con­flict of in­ter­est to light.

“MV has con­tin­ued to col­lect funds pro­vided by the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment and the com­pact ju­ris­dic­tions de­spite know­ingly and in­ten­tion­ally sur­ren­der­ing its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to Trans­dev,” the suit reads. “MTM has ut­terly failed to pro­vide any mean­ing­ful qual­ity as­sur­ance safe­guards or over­sight of Trans­dev and MV,” the suit says.

Metro did not re­spond to ques­tions about the law­suit. A spokesman said the agency could not com­ment on pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

Trans­dev de­clined to com­ment on the law­suit.

MV Trans­porta­tion and MTM did not re­spond to sev­eral email re­quests for com­ment. The U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice for the District of Mary­land did not re­spond to an in­quiry as to why it de­clined to in­ter­vene in the suit. The United States is named as a co-plain­tiff along with the District.

Bret­ner’s at­tor­ney said sum­monses have yet to be served in the suit, so the de­fen­dants have not re­sponded in court.

With about 43,000 reg­is­tered MetroAc­cess is the tran­sit agency’s fastest-grow­ing and most ex­pen­sive ser­vice. The agency spends more than $100 mil­lion an­nu­ally to pro­vide the ser­vice through five con­trac­tors.

MetroAc­cess per­for­mance dropped sharply dur­ing a stretch be­gin­ning last fall — at one point, on-time per­for­mance was down nearly 10 per­cent­age points from tar­get — but has re­cov­ered in re­cent months, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fig­ures. Pressed to ex­plain the per­for­mance drop in a re­cent re­port, Metro and its con­trac­tors blamed the is­sues on a driver short­age that left the com­pa­nies 10 per­cent short of the 1,000 needed to run at full ca­pac­ity.

It’s un­known, how­ever, whether prob­lems with dis­patch fac­tored into the ser­vice de­cline.

Bret­ner, who owns Trans­porta­tion Main­te­nance Ser­vices, Blue Bird Cab Co., and Prince Ge­orge’s Yel­low Cab Com­pany, said in the law­suit that he was thwarted in his at­tempts to be­come a MetroAc­cess sub­con­trac­tor af­ter months of “ob­fus­ca­tion and de­lay” as the al­leged scheme un­folded. Bret­ner’s at­tor­ney, Ryan S. Spiegel, said the al­leged of­fenses are par­tic­u­larly egre­gious, given the vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion MetroAc­cess serves.

Nei­ther Spiegel nor Bret­ner could im­me­di­ately pro­vide ev­i­dence di­rectly sup­port­ing their claims, which were said to be upon “in­for­ma­tion and be­lief,” but they said they planned to present ev­i­dence in court.

“In this case, the MetroAc­cess con­tract at is­sue was very clear that there were sup­posed to be dif­fer­ent si­los of ac­tiv­ity that were sup­posed to be in­ten­tion­ally sep­a­rate and in­de­pen­dent,” Spiegel said in an in­ter­view. “The con­tract was also clear that the ser­vice providers were sup­posed to use a very spe­cific sys­tem to pro­vide a vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion with a nec­es­sary ser­vice.

“We think the ev­i­dence is pretty strong that in this case, th­ese de­fen­dants know­ingly vi­o­lated those obli­ga­tions.”

In ad­di­tion to the con­trac­tors, the law­suit filed by Bret­ner names Metro and MetroAc­cess chief Chris­tian Kent as bear­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity in the al­leged ar­range­ment. Metro, on be­half of Kent, de­clined to com­ment.

Bret­ner claims that Trans­dev, Metro, Kent, MTM and MV Trans­porta­tion vi­o­lated the fed­eral and state False Claims Acts by “falsely cer­ti­fy­ing that they would com­ply with lo­cal laws gov­ern­ing taxi­cab ser­vices and then know­ingly cir­cum­vent­ing those laws.” Fur­ther, the law­suit says, Metro and its pa­rausers, tran­sit con­trac­tors “know­ingly pre­sented” or con­spired to present “false claims to ob­tain gov­ern­ment money un­der the . . . MetroAc­cess pro­gram.”

It goes on to claim that Trans­dev has been di­rect­ing cus­tomers onto vans un­nec­es­sar­ily, de­spite the fact that many cus­tomers in Prince Ge­orge’s County — the most pop­u­lar MetroAc­cess ju­ris­dic­tion — can walk and don’t re­quire wheelchair-ac­ces­si­ble vans.

“Now that Trans­dev is es­sen­tially in con­trol of the [call cen­ter], it has ev­ery in­cen­tive to use MetroAc­cess vans more of­ten than nec­es­sary, be­cause its re­im­burse­ment rate from [Metro] for those van trips — ap­prox­i­mately $65 per ride — is much higher than the rate for sub­con­trac­tor taxi trips billed at $3.77 per mile,” the com­plaint al­leges.

“In­deed, [Metro], through Mr. Kent and oth­ers, has been know­ingly com­plicit in this un­law­ful con­duct by Trans­dev,” the law­suit says.

The suit comes three years af­ter an­other Mary­land cab com­pany, Chal­lenger Trans­porta­tion, al­leged a con­flict of in­ter­est in the award­ing of the MetroAc­cess con­tract be­cause then-Metro board Chair­man Tom Downs also helmed the board of ad­vis­ers for Ve­o­lia Trans­porta­tion of North Amer­ica (now Trans­dev North Amer­ica) at the time the agree­ment was reached. That law­suit, also filed in U.S. District Court, has not been re­solved, and Bret­ner’s suit re­news the con­flict-ofin­ter­est con­cerns, al­leg­ing that Downs’s fail­ure to dis­close those ties at the time was a vi­o­la­tion of the law.

Downs said that while he knew from in­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tions at Ve­o­lia that the com­pany was con­sid­er­ing bid­ding for the MetroAc­cess con­tract, he re­cused him­self from dis­cus­sions of any po­ten­tial con­tract.

He said he also re­cused him­self from any ac­tion, con­tact or in­for­ma­tion about the bid. In ad­di­tion, he phys­i­cally left Metro head­quar­ters when­ever the con­tract was dis­cussed, he said.

“I was phys­i­cally re­mov­ing my­self from the board meet­ing and, to be ex­tra safe, I said I was leav­ing the build­ing dur­ing this dis­cus­sion,” he said.

A writ­ten re­cusal fol­lowed, Downs said.

Asked whether his dual roles as Metro board chair­man and chair­man of Ve­o­lia North Amer­ica’s board could have con­trib­uted in any way to the con­tract’s award: “If you doubt [for­mer Metro Gen­eral Man­ager] Rich Sar­les’s in­tegrity,” Downs said. “I asked Rich to make sure that . . . I re­ceived no ver­bal or writ­ten in­for­ma­tion at any time from any staff and that they were not to even ac­ci­den­tally pro­vide me with any in­for­ma­tion.”

The suit also ac­cuses an­other cab com­pany, Sun Cab, of ben­e­fit­ing from Trans­dev’s ar­range­ment. It says Trans­dev dis­patched taxi trips to com­pa­nies un­li­censed for ac­cess ser­vices in Prince Ge­orge’s, with the money go­ing back into the par­ent cor­po­ra­tion’s pocket.

“By con­trol­ling the [dis­patch ser­vices], Trans­dev has di­rected a vast ma­jor­ity of the taxi trips in the over­all MetroAc­cess ser­vice re­gion to Sun Cab, which Trans­dev also owns,” the suit al­leges. “There­fore Trans­dev is able to en­gage in self-deal­ing and to ‘dou­ble dip’ and pay it­self twice for each such in­stance of taxi ser­vice de­liv­ery.”

Reached by phone, a per­son who iden­ti­fied him­self as Sun Cab’s gen­eral man­ager re­ferred any ques­tions about the law­suit to Trans­dev.

The amended com­plaint was filed in June, but the case was un­der seal un­til late that month as the ju­ris­dic­tions named as co-plain­tiffs de­cided whether to in­ter­vene. Mary­land and Vir­ginia sought to re­move them­selves from the case, and late last month, a fed­eral judge asked that any claims filed on their be­half be dis­missed.

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A man boards a para­tran­sit MetroAc­cess van in the District. A law­suit claims that self-deal­ing at the agency wors­ened ser­vice for el­derly or dis­abled area com­muters.

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