LCTA employees tell judge 'hitting the button' was always common practice

Last updated: July 15. 2014 11:51PM - 1754 Views
By - joconnell@civitasmedia.com



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ROYALTON — Witnesses in a criminal case against two Luzerne County Transportation Authority officials said Tuesday that public bus drivers have been padding numbers for years.
 
LCTA Executive Director Stanley J. Strelish, 60, of Wilkes-Barre and Chief Operations Officer Robb A. Henderson, 58, of Exeter each are facing a string of felony and misdemeanor charges in connection to alleged “ghost riders” reported to PennDOT starting in 2007.
 
Prosecutors from the state Attorney General's Office allege Strelish and Henderson conspired to inflate ridership numbers, specifically records relating to the number of senior citizen riders, and also encouraged workers to “hit the button” repeatedly.
 
The button in question is the one drivers use to tally senior riders. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reimburses the authority for each senior-rider trip.
 
Bus driver Louis Roman of Hanover Township, during the last day of testimony in the pre-trial hearing, told the judge “hitting the button” had always just been part of the job.
 
“I became aware of that since day one, when I got employed,” Roman said.
 
He started with LCTA in 1990.
 
Roman never got a direct order to pad ridership, he said. But, on separate occasions, he overheard Henderson and Strelish tell drivers to keep up the senior ridership numbers.
 
Strelish became the authority's executive director in 2007. Henderson has worked for the authority since the late 1990s.
 
Both remain free on $25,000 unsecured bail.
 
Former Luzerne County chief public defender Al Flora, who is defending Henderson, hinged much of his questioning on whether the officials instructed drivers to record senior ridership accurately — not falsely — as the they could have been worried drivers simply were not counting the elder riders as they boarded.
 
While there seemed to be no denying drivers “hit the button,” defense attorneys cast doubt on whether Strelish and Henderson had asked them to do it.
 
Driver Louis Lyons, hired in 2009, pushed back against the long-held rider button-pushing practice from the start, he said.
 
“I made it clear to almost everybody that I did not feel comfortable doing this,” Lyons said. “I did not want to hit the button.”
 
His resistance once roused a break-room discussion during which Henderson stepped in, Lyons said.
 
Henderson told them, “If we didn't do that, hit the button, there would be layoffs, and I was at the bottom of the (seniority) list. I would be one of the first to go,” Lyons said.
 
Lyons admitted at one time he covered the security camera aimed at his fare box.
 
“I covered the camera so I could not be seen not hitting the button,” Lyons said. “And I would not be ridiculed for doing that.”
 
Fail-safe button
 
Back in the 1980s, when the Luzerne County Transportation Authority installed new fare boxes on its buses, there were about 24 buttons drivers had to learn.
 
There was a numbered button for short zone riders, one for transfers, another for students, recently-retired bus driver William MacLunney said.
 
It was the number 7 button — the one to designate a senior rider whose free ride would be reimbursed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation — drivers learned to hit repeatedly because it meant more funding would arrive from Harrisburg.
 
Those fare boxes since have been upgraded, but the practice remains the same, MacLunney said.
 
The senior-rider button was treated as a fail-safe, Lyons said.
 
Blind riders, riders who did not have enough cash to pay the fare or anyone else who didn't fit standard fare descriptions often were counted as senior riders, Lyons said.
 
Roman, who now serves as treasurer for the Amalgamated Transit Unit 164, the bus drivers' union, said he did not know hitting the button was illegal and the source of much of the authority's funding until he “put the pieces together.”
 
It was only when he became active with the Local in 2009 and then, in 2012, the authority installed security cameras inside the buses aimed at the fare box, that Roman said he ceased hitting the button altogether.
 
No layoffs predicted
 
Most of authority's funding does not come from bus fares; it runs on dollars from the federal, state and county government.
 
PennDOT officials told the authority it over-reported $3.1 million over seven years, and the state agency withheld funding in that amount for it's 2013-14 allotment.
 
Prosecutors argue that Strelish and Henderson told drivers layoffs were eminent without the fluffed up senior-rider numbers.
 
But during his testimony, the authority's financial controller, Mohammed Najib, testified he received no indication the authority was in danger of losing its PennDOT funding, and Strelish's defense attorney, Joshua Lock of Harrisburg, presented data that showed during some fiscal years within the last decade, senior ridership numbers declined while PennDOT funding increased.
 
Both parties may have to have to wait a few months to make closing arguments for the pre-trial hearing held in Dauphin County. After closing arguments, Judy is to decide if enough evidence exists to send the case to trial.
 
On his way out of the district judge's office following the second day testimony for the hearing, defense attorney Flora told the press closing arguments likely won't be held until September because of scheduling conflicts.
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