ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A city employee sent to California to inspect Albuquerque Rapid Transit electric buses admitted to cutting workdays short to visit with his wife’s family, while another spent $1,314 to rent a “premium” car during his official trip.
A new investigation from the city’s Office of Inspector General found possible policy violations and instances of time fraud among the Transit Department employees dispatched to Lancaster, California, in 2017 and 2018 to inspect the ill-fated electric buses slated for use on the ART route.
The investigation followed a complaint that city employees had treated their official work trips as vacations.
Inspector General Kenneth Bramlett’s office found that most city employees who traveled to the BYD plant over a nine-month period acted appropriately, although the report echoed some previous OIG findings that they often lacked proper training to conduct the inspections.
But the 21-page report highlights areas of concern about employees not working full 8-hour days, using city-funded rental vehicles for personal use and accepting gifts from BYD.
BYD was Albuquerque’s original ART bus vendor, but the relationship soured when city officials alleged numerous safety and battery-charge issues with the electric vehicles it produced. Alleged flaws included buses that did not stop when emergency doors were used and handicap chair locks that malfunctioned when the driver used the air conditioner.
The city sued BYD last December claiming breach of contract and ultimately ordered diesel-powered ART replacement vehicles from a different vendor. The city and BYD settled the lawsuit earlier this year, agreeing to exit the $22.9 million contract with no money changing hands.
The OIG had in 2018 investigated the ART project, finding in part that employees sent by the city to perform bus inspections at the California manufacturing plant lacked sufficient training. It also found that BYD’s first ART bus was built outside of city specifications because the company felt pressure from top city administrators to deliver a vehicle before former Mayor Richard Berry left office.
For its newest investigation, the OIG focused on 17 trips Transit Department employees made to the California plant between June 2017 and March 2018 — trips that cost the city a total of $79,600.
City Transit Director Danny Holcomb said most of the trips predate the current mayoral administration but that leaders “take these findings seriously.”
“Transit is conducting an HR review that is close to wrapping up, and the appropriate disciplinary action will be taken,” he said in a written statement Monday.
Employees were supposed to work 8-hour days and be reimbursed only for rental vehicles in the “economy class” and fuel costs related to their official business.
But one employee rented a Dodge Challenger RT, which the report calls a “premium sports car,” at a cost of $1,314.85 — 49% more than he was initially allocated — and admitted he had lied about the rental agency telling him it would cost the same as an economy car. He also submitted for reimbursement multiple receipts for the same fuel stops — turning in one prepaid receipt and another for the actual amount at the pump — and the city honored both.
“Prepayment receipts should never have been accepted by the travel coordinator and approvers,” the report states.
Another employee traveled to Lancaster with his wife and admitted that on multiple occasions he left the plant early or arrived late because he was spending time with his wife’s family, who live 65 miles away. He also allowed his wife to drive the city-funded rental car to see her family while he was at work, though he did not pay any portion of the rental costs to account for the personal use.
According to the report, one city employee posted social media pictures of himself on the water with a fishing pole and at the beach with his significant other at times he should have been working. He contended that the photos were taken during his off hours even though they were uploaded on Tuesdays.
“He stated that he was not a tech wizard, but as a man when he takes a picture it stays on his phone for a while before he decides to do something with it,” according to the report.
He said he no longer had the photos because he had gotten a new phone and failed to provide documentation about how long his significant other had been in California despite telling the OIG he would.
The OIG could not determine if he took personal time during his work day, according to the report, which also notes the difficulty in tracking employees’ actual work time. Several claimed they had trouble clocking in on the BYD system and they did not always clock out.
The investigation also found that BYD employees bought two employees’ lunch on multiple occasions and one city worker accepted from a BYD worker a ticket for the Hot Rod Nationals event. The city prohibits employees from taking gifts “for the performance or nonperformance of their duties” from any vendor doing business with the city.