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FBI investigates former VRE employee

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The FBI is looking into whether a former Virginia Railway Express official steered an agency contract to a company in return for a payoff, according to transportation officials.

The employee was placed on administrative leave and then fired earlier this year after former chief executive Dale Zehner started to look into the allegations, VRE officials said. It is not clear whether the employee was fired because of the alleged kickback or whether other issues led to his dismissal.

The Washington Post is not naming the former employee because he has not been charged with a crime. As part of his job, he was responsible for overseeing maintenance of train stations.

A message left for the former employee was not returned Thursday, and there was a busy signal when calls to a number for his business were made.

Mark Roeber, a VRE spokesman, said that the arrangement under scrutiny involves a subcontractor who was hired as part of a five-year, $2.6 million contract for landscaping, trash removal and other maintenance work.

A copy of a subcontractor’s invoice obtained by The Post indicates that a $3,000 payment for “consulting services” was paid to a company owned by the former employee.

It is not clear whether the scope of the investigation extends beyond that payment. Andrew Ames, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment.

Roeber said VRE has cooperated with the FBI and state auditors investigating the matter. He said state and federal authorities also are looking into whether taxpayer dollars may have been misused.

“The [acting] CEO [Rich Dalton] has been very aggressive in making sure that we’re working in unison with the commonwealth as well as the FBI to give them the documentation that they need,” Roeber said.

Roeber said the agency also is examining its contracting procedures to “look for ways to improve the system.”

VRE is controlled by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission. Its two rail lines, which connect Prince William and Stafford counties and downtown Washington, carry an average of 16,000 passengers a day, its Web site says.

The state and federal investigations were sparked by a March e-mail sent to area officials and signed “A Very Concerned VRE Patron.”

The one-page e-mail, which was obtained by The Post, says there was “unsavory practice in the contract procurement procedure” and outlines a “kickback” scheme involving the employee. The e-mail also expresses additional concerns about the agency and the employee.

Thelma Drake, a former member of Congress who serves as director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said that her agency launched an audit based on the e-mail. She said state officials stepped aside when they learned about the FBI investigation and will conclude after federal authorities wrap up.

Drake said auditors will look at, in part, whether the contracts should have been given to others. “You could make the assumption that the service could have been provided for less money,” Drake said. “We aren’t going to know until the whole thing is resolved.”

Board members understand that “with the FBI involved, we will be brought in on a need-to-know basis,” said Frederic Howe, a Fredericksburg appointee to the VRE Operations Board. He said that although he understands board members cannot be given all of the information because of legal reasons, he said he thinks that VRE employees could do better keeping them updated.

“I would expect to be brought into the fold,” he said. “I’m the one that has to answer down the line.”

In 2011, VRE looked into an unrelated possible contracting problem. The agency’s 2011 financial audit states that “we have no knowledge of fraud or suspected fraud involving VRE.” But a handwritten note underneath adds, “with the exception of the items discussed in the conversation on 11/15/11,” according to the audit.

In that instance, auditors learned that a VRE employee had set up a company before his arrival at VRE, and they had questions about whether the company was involved with the agency, according to a Dec. 16 letter to board members from Zehner, who stepped down in July.

Zehner wrote that he looked into the situation and found that the employee had not used his company or his position at VRE improperly. “A review of all VRE contracts did not reveal any business relationship between the VRE and the employee’s business,” Zehner wrote.

However, Howe and Susan Stimpson, a board member from Stafford County, said they asked for an independent review, which was not conducted. “It needed to be an outside entity . . . so there was no concern of conflict of interest,” Howe said. “I still feel the same way.”

VRE officials placed a copy of the audit online without the handwritten note. Stimpson said she plans to ask about the omission at the board’s Friday meeting, as well as get assurances that the suspected fraud was looked into properly.

“We haven’t let this go for a year,” Stimpson said.

As the board continues its search for a new CEO and the organization heads into its next audit cycle, Stimpson said she wants to ensure the resolution of past issues.

“I’m working toward having an open, responsible and accountable process,” she said. “There may be an explanation, but I have questions I want answered.”

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