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WILKES-BARRE — In 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation first threw up a red flag about swelling senior citizen ridership at the Luzerne County Transportation Authority.

Criminal charges in what would come to be known as the “ghost rider” scandal didn’t come until Wednesday, even as the numbers continued to rise for several years after the initial spike caught Harrisburg’s eye.

What happened during the intervening seven years?

PennDOT officials on Thursday said they could not discuss specifics related to the investigation into alleged illegal practices promoted by LCTA’s top two officials, but said there were efforts to address the issue before it broke out into the open two years ago with public accusations made by county Councilman Edward Brominski about artificially inflated senior passenger counts.

“Prior to the allegations of misreported ridership in the summer of 2012, PennDOT had initiated a consultant review of the data collection procedures used by each transit system,” PennDOT deputy press secretary Erin Waters-Trasatt wrote in an email to The Times Leader on Thursday.

“After the reports of inflated senior ridership reporting, we focused on an intensive review of senior ridership. This review supplemented PennDOT’s ongoing repeated notifications to transportation providers that accurate data is essential to performance analysis and grant calculations,” Waters-Trasatt continued.

LCTA Executive Director Stanley Strelish and Operations Director Robb Alan Henderson were charged Wednesday with dozens of criminal counts each, and released on $25,000 unsecured bail after arraignment before District Judge David H. Judy in Dauphin County.

The criminal case against Strelish and Henderson will be prosecuted in Dauphin County. Preliminary hearings are scheduled for 9 a.m. July 14 before Judy.

Grand jury probe

Their arrests followed investigation by a statewide grand jury, which heard from witnesses, including several LCTA bus drivers, who testified that Strelish and Henderson encouraged drivers to overstate the number of senior citizens riding their buses in order to bring in more subsidies for the older riders.

Several testified Strelish told employees layoffs would occur if the subsidies decreased, according to the grand jury’s presentment.

In 2006, grand jury documents show, 511,026 senior riders were reported. The next year, the figure jumped by 19 percent, to 608,298.

In November 2007, the presentment says, PennDOT sent Strelish a letter demanding an explanation.

“His response attributed the increase to, among other things, the opening of a casino, a press release about free senior citizen rides, installation of new fare boxes and the high price of gasoline,” the grand jury says.

But the increase wasn’t over. The following year, senior ridership jumped 32 percent, to 803,352 in 2008. The numbers continued to hover in the 700,000 range for several more years.

A Times Leader analysis of figures provided by the grand jury suggests that the actual number of senior riders in most of those years was closer to 190,000.

Matters came to a head in 2012, when Brominski’s accusations made headlines. Senior ridership began to drop after that time.

“The July 2012 media reports were initially investigated internally by PennDOT,” state Attorney General’s Office Assistant Press Secretary Lauren C. Bozart wrote Thursday. The matter was then investigated by the state Office of Inspector General and then referred to to the AG’s Office for criminal investigation and prosecution, Bozart added.

“Referrals from other Commonwealth agencies for criminal investigation/prosecution are common,” Bozart wrote.

The grand jury reported that agents from the state Inspector General’s Office spoke with Henderson in February and March of 2013.

Employees questioned

Late last year, it emerged that LCTA employees had been questioned by the grand jury in Dauphin County.

Asked about whether issues similar to the LCTA charges have taken place elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Waters-Trasatt said she could not discuss specific investigations, but added that PennDOT has been addressing the issue statewide.

“In recent years, PennDOT has also been working with transit providers to improve data collection through various means, including farebox improvements, cameras in buses, automated people counting technology and more,” she wrote.

“We have provided training on data collection and quality assurance and have standardized reporting with Excel spreadsheets and embedded calculations. We’ve also updated our requirements to include the annual documentation of quality assurance procedures by each transit agency as part of the data certification process.”

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