PLAINS TWP. — Happy? Yes. Vindicated? No.
“Not until justice is handed down from the bench,” Luzerne County Transportation Authority board member and whistle blower Patrick Conway said when asked how he was feeling Thursday, a day after the arrests of the authority’s two top officials.
It was Conway who brought concerns about possible fraud and cover-ups at the LCTA to county Councilman Edward Brominski back in 2012 after, Conway said, fellow board members dismissed those concerns.
Brominski went public with the information, describing non-existent senior citizens in inflated passenger counts on county buses as “ghost riders.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation investigated and found $3.1 million in overpayments of state funding to the LCTA based on inflated passenger counts earlier this year. LCTA Executive Director Stanley Strelish and Operations Director Robb Henderson were arrested Wednesday on criminal charges related to those passenger counts.
Eight bus drivers testified to a grand jury that Strelish and Henderson instructed and pressured them into inflating passenger counts by threatening layoffs if state funding decreased because of declining ridership. They testified they pushed a button on the fare box multiple times to record senior citizen riders that weren’t actually on the buses.
“The high-button pushers should have been charged, too,” Conway said, regardless of a fear of losing their jobs. “They’re over 21. What’s wrong is wrong. If they did that in the military, they’d be in the stockade. … They should have spoken out years ago.”
But, Conway said, he could understand their fear because he believes they didn’t feel they would have union backing. “There’s no union leadership there. … They gave Stanley whatever he wanted.”
Paul Jason, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 164, declined to respond to Conway’s remarks, saying, “I ain’t playing their game.”
Conway, 68, a retired locomotive engineer, said he was appointed to the nine-member authority board in November 2011.
“I sat there and listened and absorbed what was going on. Then I started asking questions,” he said during an interview on the back deck of his Plains Township home.
In addition to bus drivers, Conway said he also spoke with Robert Turinski, who was a board member from 2005 through 2012 and board chairman around 2007.
Turinski testified to the grand jury that Strelish complained to him in private conversations that the drivers would not “press the button,” and that “if they didn’t start, there would be layoffs with drivers and mechanics.”
According to the grand jury presentation, Turinski testified that sometime after he became chairman, he confronted Strelish and asked, “Are you still going to send them fraudulent reports into the state?” Turinski testified Strelish hesitated, then said “COLTS does it,” referring to the County of Lackawanna Transit System.
Taking from seniors
Conway said he pursued bringing the allegations to light because by the authority receiving state funding that wasn’t deserved, “you’re taking from the senior citizens. You’re taking from the PACE program, you’re taking from rent rebates, from Meals on Wheels, all that. He took it from the seniors, the Greatest Generation.”
Free bus service for senior citizens is funded by the Pennsylvania Lottery, which also funds the PACE and PACENET prescription drug programs for seniors, rent and property tax rebates, long-term living services and Area Agencies on Aging and Senior Centers, which provide hot meals and social, educational and recreational activities for older residents.
Conway said he thinks Strelish directed drivers to inflate senior ridership counts out of “greed” and seeking “prestige.”
“Stanley said to me, ‘Mr. Conway, how can I be doing a bad job? We have $7 million in the bank,’ ” Conway said, noting that Strelish was referring to a surplus the authority accumulated over his tenure.
“That’s because he didn’t use (all of the funding received). What they give you, you’re supposed to use,” Conway said of state funding and bemoaned the lack of nighttime bus service that he said once existed in the county.
Strelish “pulled the strings. He told the (authority) chairmen what to do. He got a $15,000 raise in January 2012, he said to put him in line with (the executive director from the County of Lackawanna Transit System),” Conway said.
Conway said he hopes that some qualified LCTA employees will be put in place to fill Strelish’s and Henderson’s positions, regardless of whether they are found guilty or not guilty. And he wonders how long it will take for that determination.
“It took two years to get this done,” Conway said of the charges being filed.
For now, he’s waiting for vindication.