- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

A former Metro parking manager says the millions of dollars missing in Metro parking lot revenue is due to mismanagement and faulty data-tracking equipment, not employee theft.

Ronald L. Habegger, who was the parking manager with Metro from October 1988 until last June, said in an affidavit that the agency’s parking office is largely responsible for the missing money because for years it withheld information from the Metro Board about revenue-monitoring equipment not being able to track funds.

A 2003 internal audit — which accuses cashiers employed by parking contractor Penn Parking of stealing $500,000 to $1 million yearly from cash payments made at parking lots and garages — is inaccurate because “it does not take into account variables such as missing SmarTrip transactions, parking permits and other misdirected tabulations,” Mr. Habegger said.

The audit was performed last year after Metro received an anonymous tip on its internal fraud hot line. In the affidavit, Mr. Habegger said the tip was submitted by a staff member in the agency’s parking office in an attempt to shift blame to him and Penn Parking.

“Denton Kent told me I was a scapegoat,” Mr. Habegger said. “Denton was just as [liable] as I was.”

Mr. Kent, Metro’s managing director of property development and management, was Mr. Habegger’s direct supervisor. He was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Mr. Habegger says he retired in May 2003 after being intentionally excluded from a budget committee meeting concerning parking revenue control.

In the affidavit, Mr. Habegger said Mr. Kent told him he was expected to resign, which he refused.

Metro officially declined to comment concerning charges made in the affidavit, Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

The audit indicated that revenue shortfalls at four stations — Naylor Road, Southern Avenue, Suitland and Vienna South — over 48 days totaled $29,738 for fiscal 2002. Estimates show if that amount were used to gauge a system-wide total, Metro possibly lost $500,000 to $1 million annually.

Penn Parking, the former contractor hired to manage Metro’s parking lots and garages, was blamed after the scandal broke in February.

Penn has maintained fair warning was given to Metro about possible theft permitted by faulty equipment. In the affidavit, Mr. Habegger said the company advised Metro numerous times that the equipment was not working, making it impossible to accurately track revenue. Under the management contract, Metro is responsible for installing and maintaining working equipment.

The warnings went ignored by Metro, Mr. Habegger said. “Every time I’d make a suggestion, they’d tell me they’d get right on it, but they would never do anything.”

Metro said that privately owned Penn is culpable for the actions of its employees, some of whom are accused in the audit of theft. The agency asked that 31 cashiers be removed from their positions after an internal audit revealed the losses.

Daniel Mulugeta, who had worked with Penn for nine years and was one of the 31 cashiers, was fired in December, charged with theft and arrested. Charges against him were dismissed last month by a Montgomery County District Court judge for lack of evidence.

Charles Siegel, attorney for Penn Parking, said the company is contemplating legal action and will forward the affidavit to governing jurisdictions and agencies. Penn is seeking back pay for the employees and administrative fees incurred while under contract.

The transit agency converted to a cashless parking system Monday, making prepaid SmarTrip cards the only acceptable method of payment at its 33 lots and garages.

LAZ Parking — based in Hartford, Conn. — was selected to operate the new system. One of seven companies that submitted bids, it won a $3.1 million contract for 13 months with three one-year options.

Metro spent $1.2 million to install additional SmarTrip-operated fare gates and SmarTrip vending machines in its parking garages, Mr. Taubenkibel said.

The 33 lots and garages will be manned by as many as 55 employees, including six roving supervisors at peak hours, Mr. Taubenkibel said. Their tasks will be to assist with customer needs.

“Two employees per lot will be sufficient at peak hours,” Mr. Taubenkibel said.

Mr. Habegger said he is skeptical about previous problems with the SmarTrip technology being resolved. One parking lot incorrectly reported an extra $1 million in monthly revenue during his tenure, he said.

“If the system can add a million, it can lose a million,” Mr. Habegger said. “Where does that money go? Cyberspace? How do they rectify the problem? They cannot because there’s no paper trail.”

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