Luzerne County Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski said he had a sense of vindication Wednesday when charges were filed against two top county transportation authority employees.
Brominski was the first to publicly raise allegations the authority intentionally exaggerated the number of senior citizen bus riders — he dubbed them “ghost riders” — to boost state funding.
But the accuracy of his July 2012 announcement was called into question after repeated denials of wrongdoing from some authority board members and authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish, who was charged Wednesday along with authority Operations Manager Robb Henderson.
“Maybe now they’ll listen to me,” Brominski said. “There are a lot of things I bring up, and I’m not doing this for notoriety.”
Brominski said he learned of the alleged rider padding from authority board member Patrick Conway around the start of 2012. Brominski said he advised Conway to “start speaking up” about the concern to authority officials and decided to go public at a County Council meeting because “nobody in the authority would go along with Pat.”
Conway later was removed from authority committees in “retaliation” for alerting Brominski, the councilman alleges.
A year after he went public, Brominski asked the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate his report of “ ghost riders.” He told state Attorney General Kathleen Kane the authority had continued denying the numbers were purposefully inflated, despite a significant decline in senior riders since he exposed the matter.
Brominski said board members “who were so strongly in support of Strelish” should resign immediately. Strelish and Henderson should be put on leave without pay, he said.
Strelish, who declined comment, has vehemently denied instructing drivers to pad numbers and told a reporter as recently as March that he is confident his innocence would be proven in the end.
The authority plans to hold a special meeting Tuesday to address the employment status of Strelish and Henderson, who were arrested on dozens of criminal charges related to inflated passenger counts, said authority Solicitor Joseph Blazosek.
Blazosek made the announcement after a closed-door authority personnel committee meeting Wednesday that originally was scheduled to discuss other staff matters.
The committee met with some “key personnel” to discuss the need to focus on services “without interruption or problems,” Blazosek said.
“The key is the services will continue. The system will operate. The people that are here are very capable and able to do that,” he said.
He declined to discuss possible personnel actions involving Strelish and Henderson or their current employment status, saying any changes must be discussed by the full board Tuesday and approved by a majority to take effect. The personnel committee had “some thoughts” on potential actions, but he said it would be “premature” to discuss them until the full board is briefed and consulted.
Blazosek also noted the charges against the employees have not been adjudicated.
Tuesday’s meeting likely will begin at 5 p.m. at the authority complex on Northampton Street in Kingston, he said.
Authority Chairman Sal Licata and several workers at the authority who were approached Wednesday declined comment.
West Pittston resident Sharon Natt, 68, encountered a pack of media representatives Wednesday when she visited the authority offices to inquire about bus service and described the potential misreporting of senior riders for financial gain as “sad.”
Natt said many seniors will suffer in the end if any bus services are reduced or eliminated as a result of the controversy. All her friends rely on the bus to access doctors and other places because they don’t drive or have cars, she said.
“If services are cut, I won’t be able to go places,” Natt said.
Push to regionalize
County Council Chairman Rick Morelli said the charges reinforces the push for a regional transportation authority with Lackawanna County covering busing, rail and airport services.
“That would benefit Northeastern Pennsylvania. We could get more grants and focus on true transportation infrastructure rather than having these small authorities,” Morelli said.
Both counties have asked the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study on a merger.
The department is evaluating the request and has worked with the counties in the past on programs to regionalize services or share resources, deputy press secretary Erin Waters-Trasatt said Wednesday.
“When we have a decision on providing technical assistance for the study, we will work with the stakeholders involved to outline a scope of work. The timeline would be determined by the breadth of that scope of work,” she said.
Morelli believes Strelish and Henderson should step down, even though they have not been proven guilty. New leadership would be best for the authority and area, he said.
“There’s a saying, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire,’ and I think there has been too much smoke here,” Morelli said.
The arrests are another black eye for a county still recovering from a federal corruption probe that brought down numerous public employees and officials, he said.
Morelli praised Kane and her office for investigating the matter. He had proposed County Council use its home rule investigatory powers for the first time in February to examine the authority, which receives an annual county allocation and is governed by nine board members appointed by County Council.
The motion failed because some citizens and council members questioned what the county would accomplish from an investigation and said the county should await results of the state probe.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck also had proposed the idea of a council investigation in May 2013 before council was aware of the state investigation.
County Councilman Stephen A. Urban, a former county commissioner credited for reporting some of the activity that led to arrests in the federal corruption probe, said he is somewhat surprised public employees and officials continue to take chances with public funds.
On Tuesday, Urban called for a briefing from court officials on collection procedures in light of the U.S. Attorney’s Office announcement last week that former probation worker Stacey McGlone was charged with stealing more than $5,000 in fines, restitution and other debts paid by offenders served by her department between January 2009 and this March.
“Here’s another one,” Urban said. “I think there’s still a culture in the county that people can do whatever they want and get away with it.”
Urban believes suspension without pay for Strelish and Henderson is the authority’s only option.
“If they remain in their positions, they’ll be in direct contact with workers who testified against them before the grand jury,” Urban said.
He also said it’s “troubling” employees allegedly “went along” with a directive to pad rider counts and apparently didn’t report it was happening until Conway was alerted.
“Why did employees over there continue to do this if it was wrong? They’re protected by a union,” Urban asked.