By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – In February 2010, one or more commissioners of the Pennsylvania Turnpike walked into a Harrisburg restaurant.
They, perhaps with guests, rang up a bill of nearly $500.
But it’s impossible to determine the punch line of that joke because auditors who recently examined the turnpike’s expense accounts say there is no way to know much else about what happened at the restaurant.
Like most expenses incurred by the top officials of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, there were no receipts and no information about the number of individuals involved, the content of their orders or the legitimate business purpose for the gathering.
A regularly scheduled performance audit of the Turnpike Commission released this week by out-going Auditor General Jack Wagner points to an overall lack of transparency and accountability in how the commission’s expense accounts were used during the January 2007 -August 2011 period the audit examined. The Turnpike Commission said they will include the expenses of commissioners and top officials in an on-going review of how expenses are reimbursed for all employees.
For that February 2010 meal that cost toll-payers $494, the auditors said they hoped it included a large number of people discussing turnpike business and did not include alcohol. But without receipts or detailed information in the expense voucher, it is impossible to verify any of that information.
“Accordingly, there is a complete lack of transparency as to what the Turnpike reimbursed commissioners for using toll customers’ monies,” the auditors wrote in their report.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is the five-member governing body, with four members selected by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The state Secretary of Transportation is the fifth member of the commission.
Commissioners are paid the relatively modest salary of $26,000 for their positions, which require them to be on-duty 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
But they seem to make up for the modest salaries with expense accounts that auditors deemed “overly generous and permissive,” in the new report.
The Turnpike Commission incurred more than $539,000 in expenses for the six people who served on the panel during the four-and-a-half years that the audit examined.
Commissioners do not fill out timesheets or otherwise document their work hours, auditors wrote, making it impossible to verify the turnpike’s claim that its commissioners are on-call around-the-clock.
“Let’s face it, the commissioners are the leaders, and they need to be cost-efficient for the turnpike to be cost-efficient,” Wagner said during a Tuesday news conference.
Commissioners also spent lavishly on lodging, including a one-night stay at a Harrisburg hotel in September 2008 that cost $315, well above the normal rate of $179 per night at the same hotel.
Without specifics or receipts, auditors said the additional charges implied the high-dollar amounts meant commissioners either opted for more luxurious rooms or added other hotel charges such as valet parking and room service.
There are six hotels within three miles of the Turnpike headquarters with room rates of less than $100 per night, according to the audit.
“Given that more prudent accommodations are located near Turnpike headquarters, we would be hard pressed to find any justification for this expense,” the auditors wrote.
“All expenses were allowed and prudency did not appear to be a concern,” in making decisions about whether the expenses would be reimbursed, the auditors noted.
In a written response to the audit, the Turnpike Commission said their bi-monthly meetings in Harrisburg require commissioners to travel from their homes and incur expenses. The commission said it is taking steps to limit travel by having some meetings replaced with teleconferences.
The commission also pointed to the then-ongoing process of trying to gain approval for the tolling of Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania as a reason for higher levels of travel during the years the audit examined.
Finally, they promised to review expenses of top-level and executive staff along with the expenses of all turnpike employees.
“Under the leadership of our Commissioners, the Turnpike is engaging in multiple internal reform efforts aimed at reducing our fiscal footprint, increasing our effective utilization of technology, improving roadway maintenance, rebuilding the roadway and updating our internal control processes,” wrote Craig Shuey, acting CEO of the Turnpike Commission, in a letter to Wagner accompanying the commission’s official response to the audit.
The report does not name specific commissioners who rang up the high expenses.
Asked why, Wagner said his department has a policy of not naming names in audits.
“Quite frankly, people in positions change,” he said.
While members of the commission have been ringing up hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses since 2007, the debt of the turnpike has climbed from about $2.9 billion to more than $8 billion, and drivers on the turnpike have been hit with five consecutive years of toll hikes.
The most recent toll hike took effect this week, requiring motorists to pay 2 percent more if they use the E-Z Pass electronic tolling system and 10 percent more if they pay with cash.
The turnpike commission and Wagner agreed that the higher debt and increasing tolls are the direct result of Act 44 of 2007, a state law requiring the turnpike to pay $450 million annually to the state.
Wagner has called for the repeal of the law, which he said threatens the existence of the highway, while the Turnpike Commission said there is no immediate fiscal crisis, as long as tolls continue to increase.
Wagner will step down from his post next week at the end of his second term. Eugene DePasquale, another Democrat, will be sworn in as the state’s new auditor general on Tuesday.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.