Taken For a Ride

A trail of audits and an internal investigation suggest there may have been millions of dollars worth of loss and theft at the bus company over the years. Dick Lindgren says he found out the hard way that his bosses didn't want to know.

The burglary began shortly before five o'clock on the morning of February 25, 1991. A U-Haul truck pulled up to the overhaul base on Cleveland Avenue North in St. Paul where the Metropolitan Transit Commission repaired its vehicles. One of the building's doors opened from the inside to let the burglars in; two men got out of the truck and rolled four large tires--public property bought and paid for by bus fares and tax dollars--up to the back of the truck, hoisted them inside, and drove away.

The entire incident was taped by a security camera monitoring the site, but the quality of the surveillance video was too poor to capture the license plate on the U-Haul or the faces of the men. While bus company police officers began trying to track down the registration of the truck, they sent the tape off to the FBI to see whether it could be digitally enhanced. Weeks later, both had come up empty. Nobody was ever caught or charged with the crime.

There is evidence to suggest that the incident, far from being an aberration, was typical of a culture of laxity and corruption that has existed at the bus company for many years. Since 1980, a long line of auditors has noted the company's chronic troubles in matters of purchasing and inventory control. Through the years employees have stepped forward with warnings that their coworkers were blatantly stealing company property and that managers knew about it and did nothing to stop it; the likely cost to bus riders and other taxpayers runs into the millions of dollars.

Critics also charge that the transit operation has sometimes handled its contracts in ways that violate federal regulations. The auditors, citizen critics, and employees further charge that the bus company has not responded effectively to their complaints, either filing them away with vague assurances that something would be done or, in some cases, taking steps to demote or remove the whistleblowers.

In April of this year, former police captain Richard Lindgren filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Metropolitan Council (which has overseen operations at the former MTC since a 1994 reorganization that changed its name to Metropolitan Council Transit Operations) and against MCTO general manager Tom Sather. The suit and supporting documents claim that Lindgren and other MCTO personnel have been punished for pushing to complete an internal theft investigation and report their findings.

The whole matter has quickly evolved into a nasty legal battle:

* The original presiding district court judge recused himself from the case following claims by Lindgren's lawyer that the judge had compromised his impartiality in the case.

* Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger--brought into the case ostensibly to act as an independent investigator of wrongdoing at MCTO--is now asserting a privileged attorney-client relationship with the Met Council, a claim that forestalls public access to all materials he subpoenaed and collected while investigating Lindgren's charges; his role in the case has drawn fire from Lindgren's attorney and partisan DFL critics.

* An affidavit filed by an executive secretary at MCTO in connection with the case claims that MCTO police and management personnel ordered a bus company employee to search the desks of Lindgren and MCTO Police Chief Paul Wallace and destroy "numerous documents."

By almost any measure, the bus company has fallen on hard times since the boom in ridership created by the early 1970s oil embargo began to ebb at the end of that decade. Tighter revenues, driven in part by the lack of growth in the property tax base, have resulted in numerous fare increases and service cutbacks since 1978. Ridership has declined by nearly a third during that time.

Claiming that revenues have been squeezed to the point where labor concessions must be made, MCTO management took a hard line with the bus drivers' union, demanding a decrease in the number of full-time drivers and refusing to extend the existing contract while negotiations continue, a position that forced drivers to strike earlier this month. Meanwhile, local media have reported that MCTO overspent on consulting fees by hundreds of thousands of dollars while giving management personnel hefty salary increases. Given these circumstances, the allegation that chronic theft and corruption have caused the bus company to hemorrhage untold monies for well over a decade seems especially troubling: a fiscal headache, and a political one, too.

The bus company is not generally regarded as a hotbed of political intrigue, but charges like the ones now being levied pose considerable problems not only for MCTO and its administrators but also for the Metropolitan Council and its political patrons all the way to the governor's office. The potential repercussions from any scandal at MCTO extend far and wide--particularly when the scandal involves claims of official indifference or obstruction.

Early in 1991, rumors of forthcoming budget cuts and layoffs prompted some employees to come forward with claims that up to $500,000 a year was being wasted through widespread internal theft and fraud involving everything from paper towels to lawn mowers. In interviews with transit police officers, the employees claimed that acceptance of these abuses was ingrained in the culture of what was then the MTC. One employee told transit police that a manager allowed workers to steal on the assumption that they would eventually have all they needed and wouldn't take any more. Another told police that an employee was encouraging his coworkers to steal, boasting that no one would ever be caught because the company had no effective way of tracking its parts and materials.

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