Con­sul­tant who took plea deal is off light-rail pro­ject

The Herald Sun - - Front Page - BY DAWN BAUMGARTNER VAUGHAN [email protected]­sob­server.com

GoTri­an­gle has dropped a for­mer tran­sit ex­ec­u­tive who pleaded guilty to fraud in Ari­zona as a con­sul­tant on the Durham-Or­ange Light Rail Tran­sit pro­ject.

“It was a pub­lic-trust is­sue,” said Durham County Com­mis­sion­ers Chair Wendy Ja­cobs, who serves on the GoTri­an­gle Board of Trustees.

The pro­posed $2.47 bil­lion light-rail pro­ject would con­nect Chapel Hill and Durham with up to 19 stops along 17.7 miles. It is in the design and en­gi­neerknew ing phase, with fed­eral fund­ing not yet se­cured.

The Her­ald-Sun and News & Ob­server re­ported last week that Stephen Banta, a sub­con­trac­tor for the light-rail pro­ject, took a plea deal and served no jail time for fraud while lead­ing Val­ley Metro, the Phoenix, Ari­zona, area tran­sit sys­tem. Banta took the plea in Septem­ber and was fined and sen­tenced to un­su­per­vised pro­ba­tion ear­lier this month, The Ari­zona Repub­lic re­ported.

When asked about Banta’s crim­i­nal record last week, John Tall­madge, in­terim di­rec­tor of the Durham-Or­ange Light Rail Tran­sit pro­ject, dis­missed it as “gos­sip” and said GoTri­an­gle about Banta’s charges.

In an email this week from GoTri­an­gle, board mem­bers were told Banta had since been dropped from the pro­ject. “You have likely seen the news cov­er­age con­cern­ing a con­sul­tant on the light-rail pro­ject, Stephen Banta,” the email stated. “In Septem­ber, Mr. Banta pleaded guilty to one felony count of fraud­u­lent schemes and prac­tices re­lated to a travel ex­pense in­ves­ti­ga­tion when he was em­ployed at Val­ley Metro in Phoenix three years ago. While as a part time sub-con­sul­tant to HNTB, Mr. Banta did not have a di­rect con­tract with GoTri­an­gle, and there is no ev­i­dence of any wrong­do­ing by Mr. Banta while work­ing on the pro­ject, we be­lieve it is im­por­tant to en­sure pub­lic trust. To that end, Mr. Banta is no longer work­ing on the light-rail pro­ject.”

Ja­cobs said she did not know about Banta’s record un­til it be­came pub­lic last week. She said then that Durham was com­mit­ted to re-en­try and giv­ing peo­ple sec­ond chances.

The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported that Ari­zona’s Of­fice of the

Au­di­tor Gen­eral found Banta “claimed that $32,000 in per­sonal travel, meal and al­co­hol costs for him and his wife were ex­penses re­lated to his work.”

Durham City Coun­cil mem­ber Mark-An­thony Mid­dle­ton said he was sur­prised to find out about Banta’s record.

“Well, we have ‘ban the box,’ ” Mid­dle­ton said Wed­nes­day, re­fer­ring to a pol­icy in in which peo­ple ap­ply­ing for city jobs do not have to check a box on their ap­pli­ca­tion ask­ing if they have a crim­i­nal record.

On Wed­nes­day, Ja­cobs said Banta’s “po­si­tion was such that he had no di­rect ac­cess to funds” and that there are hun­dreds of gov­ern­ment sub­con­trac­tors that she doesn’t mi­cro­man­age.

Mid­dle­ton learned of Banta’s dis­missal dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a reporter and Ja­cobs on Wed­nes­day.

He agreed that it was a pub­lic trust is­sue.

“The op­tics of it suck, but folk want to know, ‘Did this im­pact us?’ and the an­swer is ‘no,’ ” Mid­dle­ton said.

Stephen Banta

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