The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

January 8, 2013

Wagner makes final plea: Fix turnpike commission

HARRISBURG — State Auditor General Jack Wagner devoted his final press conference to one last plea that someone pay attention to the debt crisis at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Wagner leaves office at the end of the week, and newly elected auditor general Eugene Dipasquale will replace him.

Wagner has 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 Department of Transportation millions of dollars in exchange for the right to add tolls on Interstate 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 through risky financial practices, such as an interest rate swap that ended up costing the turnpike commission $108.9 million, a cost that the auditor general said will end up being passed along to taxpayers and toll-paying motorists.

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

On top of all that, auditors found that the turnpike officials spent $60,000 on meals and lodging during the four-year period reviewed.

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 $174.56; a June 2009 meal in Hershey that cost $135.68; and a February 2010 meal at a restaurant in Harrisburg that cost $494.10.

“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.”

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said that 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.

In a response issued after Wagner’s comments, turnpike acting CEO Craig Shuey said the commission has taken steps to correct most of the problems auditors found and 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.

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