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California

2 Transit Officials Placed on Leave

The move by Coachella Valley agencies follows accusations that they misspent county funds.

July 10, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Two beleaguered Coachella Valley transit agencies placed two top executives on paid administrative leave Wednesday amid accusations that the agencies have misspent public funds and falsified documents.

The board of directors for the SunLine Transit Agency and the related SunLine Services Group voted in closed session Wednesday evening to take the action against General Manager and Chief Executive Richard Cromwell III and financial officer Bill Maier.

Dennis Gilman, clerk of the board and director of administrative services, was named interim chief executive.

The suspensions followed a decision earlier Wednesday by the Riverside County Transportation Commission to order an independent audit of the Coachella Valley transit agencies.

"The board, I think, felt in light of the ongoing audit issues, this was the best thing to do," Cromwell said, adding that he supported the board's decision. "The agency is the most important thing. We do good work. We have good employees. We provide good service and we've done good for the country and world. That's what's important."

In the 19 years Cromwell has been with SunLine, the agency has developed a nationwide reputation for innovative use of alternative fuels in mass transit. Cromwell said the nature of that work was behind the audit problems. "When you're doing entrepreneurial work in a government setting, there isn't a rule book," Cromwell said.

Maier couldn't be reached for comment.

The Riverside County Transportation Commission board voted 25 to 0 to seek bids for an audit. An audit could cost as much as $100,000. The county commission oversees the finances of the affiliated transit agencies.

Cromwell listed the allegations and proposed a series of reforms before the vote. Commissioners then alternately praised and grilled him.

"You're confident, having dug this hole, you can climb out of it?" asked director Bob Buster, who is also a county supervisor.

"I am, yes," Cromwell replied.

The SunLine Transit Agency has provided transportation services for Coachella Valley residents since 1978. The SunLine Services Group is a decade-old public agency with responsibilities that include sweeping streets, regulating taxis and researching the use of clean fuels.

The agencies have been accused of misspending $751,000 in county transit funds on the Services Group and submitting backdated documents to obtain $184,000 in federal funding to buy a street sweeper, among other improprieties. Concerns about the spending were raised in a recent draft audit of the 2001-02 fiscal year by the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

To compensate for the county transit funds, Cromwell proposed transferring some Services Group assets to the Transit Agency.

Cromwell denied that any documents were backdated and said the final audit should clear up the issue. From now on, the Coachella Valley Assn. of Governments will buy street-sweeping equipment for SunLine to use, he said.

One issue that Cromwell did not discuss is a $865,787 loan that was guaranteed by the Transit Agency but used by the Services Group to buy 50 taxis.

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