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August 11, 2011

Federal investigators pay visit to OTA

Draft of contract with the state is on 10-15 Transit’s agenda for this morning’s meeting

OTTUMWA — Federal investigators have spent the past two days at the Ottumwa Transit Authoritiy office, the first clear signal of an investigation at that level.

OTA Director Mark Hagist, a former officer with the Ottumwa Police Department, said he has not discussed the investigation with the FBI and Federal Transit Authority officers who are in Ottumwa.

“I think it’s all followup to the allegations made several months ago,” Hagist said.

Those allegations were made in a state audit of OTA. The audit came out in May and included accusations of inflated ridership numbers, altered timesheets and failure to retain records as required by law. Pam Ward, then the OTA director, denied the allegations.

But within days the Courier obtained documents supporting the allegations of altered timesheets and the Iowa Department of Transportation announced it would not renew its contract with OTA. Ward and OTA Operations Manager Tom Jones were fired in early June.

The state sent the audit to the Wapello County Attorney’s office, which asked the Iowa Attorney General’s office to handle any investigation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. The state was widely believed to be waiting to see whether the federal government launched its own criminal probe, a move that now appears to have been made.

City Administrator Joe Helfenberger pledged the city’s cooperation with federal investigators.

“They’re just doing their job and we need to cooperate fully with them,” said Helfenberger.

The federal investigation came to light just as a glimmer of hope finally emerged on the state front. OTA and 10-15 Transit have continued to operate without a state contract, but have emphasized the desire to quickly reach a new agreement. The state made any new agreement contingent on receipt of accurate ridership numbers.

A draft of a contract with the state is on 10-15 Transit’s agenda for this morning’s meeting. Hagist had not reviewed the full draft as of Wednesday morning, but said it is similar to past contracts in most respects. It will also settle repayment of funds OTA and 10-15 received as a result of overcounting riders.

The contract provides less funding than previous years, which is not a surprise to officials. That will likely require a reduction in services by OTA and 10-15 Transit.

Hagist plans to ask the transit board to offer its tentative approval of the contract on the basis of the draft. The approval would become official provided there are no major changes to the final contract.

The city council must vote on the contract on behalf of OTA in keeping with the transit authority’s reduction to a city department rather than an independent board.

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