ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Showing up late to work and leaving early, getting car rental upgrades and even a free ticket to a car show. A new city investigation reveals that’s what some city workers may have been doing on business trips.
Albuquerque Transit employees were supposed to be inspecting the assembly of the original electric Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) buses in California. Now, the city says, three employees could be in trouble for how they were spending their time and taxpayer money instead.
The city watched those electric ART buses hit the road back to California a year ago after Albuquerque cited safety issues like malfunctioning brakes and batteries that just didn’t charge properly.
“When our staff goes to charge the buses, the display actually comes up in Chinese,” Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael said in a news conference last year.
That was not the same picture the previous administration painted under Mayor Richard Berry.
“This is a world-class project, the best of its kind in America,” the former mayor once said.
Now, a new report from the city’s Inspector General calls into question what Albuquerque Transit employees were doing when they were supposed to be inspecting the assembly of those electric buses at the manufacturing plant in Lancaster, California.
KRQE spoke to newly-appointed Transit Director Danny Holcomb about the findings.
“Yeah, I’m concerned,” he replied. “Based on the information I received, they probably weren’t given a lot of direction on what they were supposed to do and weren’t supposed to do.”
The investigation launched after a tip that workers treated the business trips more like vacations. It looked at 17 visits employees made to the manufacturer, Build Your Dreams (BYD), between June 2017 and March 2018.
The report revealed one employee who has been with the city for 10 years, brought his wife along for the trip to California. However, the employee said, his wife spent most of it with the city’s rental car, driving back and forth from Lancaster to a city 65 miles away to visit her family.
The employee even admitted some days he showed up late to work and left early to accompany his wife on those family visits, according to the report. An investigator estimates it amounted to 1,559 miles of driving for personal use, and the city paid $215 to gas up the rental car.
The report says a second employee charged the city extra for a premium rental to drive a Dodge Challenger RT, and that he overcharged the city for gas by turning in two receipts for the same purchase. One was a prepaid receipt and then the other was for the actual amount he ended up spending.
Finally, during work hours, the report says a third employee posted pictures to social media, showing him by the water with a fishing pole and at the beach with his significant other. Those are just some of the highlights, on top of concerns about time card fraud.
“I think accountability is huge,” Holcomb said. “I want to hold people accountable and make sure we address anything they’ve done wrong.”
The city says it’s moving to discipline three employees and couldn’t provide too many details, other than to say, they could lose their jobs.
The report also raises questions over whether these city workers were even qualified to do the bus inspections in the first place.
“Based on the information in the Inspector General’s report, probably not,” Holcomb concluded.
The city says after the problems with the BYD buses, it hired a national company to do inspections on the new buses when they were built.
The public didn’t find out about issues with the buses until Mayor Tim Keller held a press conference in January of last year, shortly after taking office, when he famously called the ART project, “a lemon.” However, it’s now known that city workers had already been inspecting those buses for more than six months under Mayor Berry.