New Castle News

Closer Look

January 12, 2013

Outgoing auditor general questions ‘culture’ of turnpike commission

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s auditor general devoted his final press conference to one last plea that someone pay attention to the debt crisis at the turnpike commission.

Jack Wagner leaves office this week and Eugene DePasquale, the newly elected auditor general, will replace him.

Wagner’s newest revelation: Turnpike staff ran up $60,000 in meals and lodging bills during the four years studied by auditors, costs the commission attributed to meetings and travel associated with lobbying for the failed bid to toll Interstate 80.

Auditors reviewed 183 travel expense vouchers, which contained incomplete or vague descriptions of the business purpose and generally did not include receipts, the auditor’s report found.

Wagner’s staff pointed to three specific instances — a July 2009 meal at a restaurant close to the turnpike headquarters that cost $174; a June 2009 meal in Hershey that cost $135 and a February 2010 meal at a restaurant in Harrisburg that cost $494.

“As Harrisburg-based auditors, we know the above examples to be relatively expensive meal charges,” the report states. “For example, for a restaurant tab to total nearly $500, we would hope it represented a meal for a large group of people conducting turnpike business and involving no alcohol. However, because the expense voucher included no mention as to the number of attendees or the purpose of the meal, we could not determine that.”

At the press conference, Wagner said the spending found in the audit “defines the culture of the turnpike system.”

Carl DeFebo, turnpike spokesman, said the spending found by the auditors related to travel and meetings by turnpike officials during the period when the commission was trying to convince the public and the federal government to go along with the bid to toll Interstate 80.

Wagner has repeatedly criticized the financial management of the turnpike commission, as well as the state’s bungled Act 44 plan that required the turnpike commission to begin paying the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation millions of dollars in exchange for the right to add tolls to I-80.

The federal government forbid Pennsylvania from tolling I-80, but the turnpike commission has been making its payments, running up a debt that has exceeded $8 billion, Wagner said.

But the turnpike commission has contributed to its problems by employing risky financial practices. Among them is an interest rate swap that ended up costing the commission $108.9 million, which the auditor general said will end up being passed along to taxpayers and toll-paying motorists.

The turnpike commission also has been lax about requiring that its employees only use commission-issued EZ passes for work purposes.

Wagner’s audit revealed the turnpike commission allowed employees to use the turnpike for free, even for personal use.

In addition, the turnpike commission provided free travel to 5,000 consultants, contractors and other state officials. Those freebies amounted to $4.1 million in lost toll revenue.

Combined with the liberal policy regarding employee travel on the turnpike, the auditors estimated the turnpike missed out on $7.7 million in toll revenue it otherwise would have collected between January 2007 and August 2011.

In a response issued after Wagner’s comments, Craig Shuey, acting chief executive officer of the turnpike, said that most of what the auditors had found, the commission has taken steps to correct, adding the turnpike is a “well-run operation.”

“While we disagree necessarily upon the weight of each of your recommendations, it is clear to me that when system safety and provision of services are considered, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is performing as should be expected.”

Shuey said that in response to the auditors’ concerns about accountability for employee travel, turnpike commission staff agree that improvements need to be made.

(Email: JFinnerty@cnhi.com)

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Closer Look
  • disability.jpg Disabilities group unveils new icon

    Disability Options Network is joining forces with the Accessible Icon Project. Officials of the community organization, located at 1929 E. Washington St., said its new icon will replace the current international symbol for accessibility.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • well.jpg Auditor: State doesn’t have enough inspectors to monitor wells

    The state’s 83 well inspectors face a daunting enough challenge keeping tabs on 120,000 active oil and gas wells that have been drilled over the last century.

     

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • vote.jpg Independent hopefuls may widen gubernatorial field

    Just when Pennsylvania voters were getting used to the idea of a gubernatorial election showdown between Republican incumbent Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, other hopefuls may soon be joining the fray.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • manna.jpg John K. Manna: Measuring the money

    Should we even bother to have an election in November? By some accounts, maybe the results of some contests are already in.

    July 26, 2014 1 Photo

  • shooting.jpg Man injured in city shooting

    A man was flown to a Pittsburgh hospital Thursday morning following a shooting on West Lincoln Avenue.

     

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • police.jpg Police: Man pulls gun on construction workers

    Construction workers in Neshannock Township flagged down police Thursday claiming a business owner had pulled a gun on them.

     

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Shooting.jpg Shooting witness arrested for giving false name

    State police have arrested a second Detroit area man after questioning him about Sunday’s fatal shooting in Ellwood City. DeMarco Dorian Hoskins, 22, of Highland Park, Mich., was the third man in a private car that transported the deceased to look for a hospital. Hoskins allegedly gave police a false identity when they questioned him as witness.

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • bridgerepair.jpg PennDOT seeks outside help to make bridge repairs

    State officials are poised to sign a massive deal that will enlist outside help to rebuild and maintain up to 600 bridges, marking the Corbett administration’s latest foray into privatizing key government functions.

     

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • GALLO_Natalie.jpg County native plays Clinton intern

    Natalie Gallo isn’t an intern, but she’s playing one on the New York stage.

     

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • Shooting.jpg Coroner: Shooting victim hit by two bullets

    An autopsy revealed a Detroit area man killed in an Ellwood City shootout had suffered two gunshot wounds. Only one was a fatal hit.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Seasonal Content
Section Teases
Must Read
Continuous Super Bowl Coverage