Third of four articles

As Marquette Henderson's vision dimmed and he could no longer drive, he sought help. He signed up for training through Blind Industries and Services of Maryland and found a job as a clerk at its store on Bolling Air Force Base. To get there and back to his Fort Washington apartment, he relied on MetroAccess, the transportation service for the disabled that Metro is required to provide under federal law.

What at first seemed like a blessing ended up adding to his difficulties. The transportation was so unreliable that one day in January 2004, Henderson didn't get to work until 12:30 p.m. for his 8 a.m. shift, he said. Sometimes, he said, he would call his wife to pick him up as he set out for home on foot, straining to see as he tapped his cane along the dusty edges of the highway.

He stopped getting bonuses. His boss put him on notice because he was frequently tardy. Last summer, he was forced to quit, he said.

"I have three teenage kids and a wife, and I'm a blind person going out there and trying to be responsible in this life, and I need some help," said Henderson, 46. "But the help I have is costing me my job."

While Henderson was navigating the breakdown lane of Indian Head Highway, Metro was paying LogistiCare, the company that has run MetroAccess since 2000, hefty performance bonuses.

For years, Metro told Henderson and other customers that their complaints of late or missing drivers were exceptions, citing LogistiCare statistics that the vast majority of rides for its 14,000 users were on time.

But LogistiCare's contract with Metro contained a loophole: When drivers failed to show up, the trips weren't recorded as late and didn't count against the company when performance bonuses were awarded. Although Metro could have regularly spot-checked LogistiCare's numbers, agency officials said they failed to do so.

And even as Metro managers were publicly wringing their hands about the escalating costs of the program, they failed to take recommended steps to control them. At the same time, LogistiCare and others were warning the agency that it was losing money to fraud by dishonest drivers and customers, according to records and interviews.

Now, problems have culminated in legal action on two fronts.

Henderson and other customers have sued Metro, claiming that MetroAccess is so unreliable, it violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. And a Metro investigation into possible fraud in the program has led to a Montgomery County grand jury probe, according to court records and Metro officials.

Officials at LogistiCare, an Atlanta-based company that manages transportation for disabled Medicaid recipients across the country, said they have and will continue to cooperate with any investigation. They said they are proud of the service they provide to the region's disabled residents.

John L. Shermyen, the company's founder and chief executive, said that proof of LogistiCare's success is in the growing number of trips requested. A 2002 customer survey commissioned by Metro showed that most passengers were satisfied with MetroAccess, and company officials noted that only a fraction of trips elicit complaints.

"We feel that the true measure of a program is ridership," Shermyen said.

A small portion of MetroAccess passengers -- 500 to 1,500 out of more than 100,000 trips a month -- have "egregious, ugly trips," but that is partly Metro's fault, Shermyen said. The agency didn't buy enough vehicles to keep up with demand, he said, and has not cracked down aggressively enough on passengers who repeatedly reserve rides and then fail to show up, throwing off schedules. LogistiCare's contract prohibited the company from meeting with disabled riders to air problems and figure out solutions, Shermyen said.

"Considering what we had to put up with, we did a damn good job," said Jo Roesle, LogistiCare's former customer relations manager.

Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White said he has taken a number of steps to correct the problems with MetroAccess. He said a 2003 policy to suspend no-show customers has succeeded in reducing the problem. He recently added language to LogistiCare's contract aimed at improving service and has stopped paying the company bonuses, he said. He also beefed up Metro's fraud detection capabilities, adding six auditors and two police detectives. White would not say how much Metro estimates it has lost to fraud.

Any suggestion that Metro doesn't take allegations of fraud seriously is wrong, White said, noting that the agency's own review led to the ongoing grand jury investigation.

Costly Service

While cities across the country offer transportation to the disabled to comply with federal law, MetroAccess is a generous program that goes well beyond the requirements.

The service is provided by a fleet of customized vans and sedans -- recognizable by their red-and-blue striping and the MetroAccess logo. When all 176 MetroAccess vehicles are in use, LogistiCare hires taxis to handle the overflow.

LogistiCare employees take telephone reservations and dispatch drivers who pick up and deliver curb-to-curb within any jurisdiction that pays for Metro service. The drivers submit logs that detail each trip, with arrival and departure times, and LogistiCare bills Metro for the rides. Riders qualify for the service by submitting to a physical examination that shows they cannot use Metrobus or the subway.

Ed Walker, 73, who is blind, said his only complaint is with riders who don't show up and make others on the route late. "I'm grateful for MetroAccess," said Walker, who depends on the service to travel between Bethesda and American University for his job hosting a radio show on WAMU. "From talking to my friends in other cities, this system works pretty good," he said.

Providing the transportation is expensive: MetroAccess is Metro's most heavily subsidized service. The agency pays LogistiCare $23.22 for each MetroAccess trip, and the passenger pays $2.50. Metro underwrites the service with tax dollars and revenue from bus and rail fares.

MetroAccess's annual budget of $51.7 million has nearly tripled since 2000, when fares were cut and demand began to skyrocket. The service provides more than five times the number of rides each month as it did in 2000.

Because the program is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, "we have extremely limited control over the MetroAccess portion of our budget," White testified before Congress in February.

Metro could reduce costs if it charged the maximum fares allowed by the federal government or restricted service to the minimum area described by law, which extends three-quarters of a mile beyond any Metro bus stop or rail station. White said the agency's board rejected those measures out of concern for "the vulnerable people who depend on these services."

In June 2003, the Metro manager who oversaw MetroAccess wrote a memo titled "Potential Cost Saving Measures . . . some may be very unpopular," which included such measures as charging a premium for passengers traveling beyond the basic service area. But it took until last month -- nearly two years later -- before Metro began charging that premium, which is expected to save the agency $400,000 annually.

White said he didn't realize that the premium wasn't being collected until The Washington Post brought it to his attention. "It should have been done; it wasn't done. It was an embarrassment," he said.

Since 2000, Metro has paid LogistiCare nearly $2.7 million in bonuses, mostly for meeting a goal in the contract of completing 92 percent of trips on time. But because of the way Metro worded that contract, LogistiCare didn't have to count against its performance when drivers didn't show up. In the first six months of last year, drivers stood up passengers 5,500 times, roughly 1 percent of trips, according to a letter LogistiCare sent Metro in the fall.

Another loophole meant that customer calls to a special hotline about late rides were counted as queries rather than complaints. That was important because until recently, Metro's contract allowed it to fine LogistiCare if monthly customer complaints exceeded certain levels.

Sometimes, lodging complaints was virtually impossible. For at least four weekdays in May, for example, the official complaint line run by Metro didn't pick up and wouldn't accept messages.

When Metro negotiated a new, one-year contract with LogistiCare in March, White inserted tougher standards. Now, when a MetroAccess vehicle misses a pickup, it is counted against LogistiCare's performance.

Allegations of Fraud

LogistiCare began alerting Metro to potential fraud as early as 2002, according to company e-mails.

One disabled woman was putting a favorite driver through college by ordering trips she never took, LogistiCare told Metro. The company also flagged one of its former employees who used a special code to order cabs for her boyfriend, with the bill going to MetroAccess. In another case, LogistiCare caught a driver claiming to make trips for a woman who was hospitalized.

"We need to make sure that transit police get involved," a LogistiCare manager wrote to a subordinate in 2003.

No one was prosecuted in any of those cases.

One MetroAccess customer used her name and identification information to book trips for her healthy daughter, said Roesle, the former LogistiCare manager. When the company alerted Metro, the agency sent the woman a letter reminding her about proper procedures. "She wasn't even suspended -- she just got away with it," Roesle said.

Avon Mackel, who oversaw the program for Metro until he was put on leave and retired this year, turned over evidence of alleged fraud to Metro Transit Police, records show. But nothing happened, Mackel said, adding that he was made a "scapegoat" for the program's problems.

"It was practically impossible for Metro to verify that trips were legitimate. And when problems were brought to the attention of the powers that be, they essentially didn't do anything," he said.

Bill Lee, a 59-year-old Bowie resident with cerebral palsy, said he often has been asked to sign blank taxicab vouchers that drivers could later fill in for any amount and submit for reimbursement. Some drivers asked him to sign falsified logs recording his late trips as on time, he said.

Customers said that sometimes, they called Metro directly to complain.

Felicia Haynes, a 45-year-old Silver Spring resident, knew something was wrong when she was picked up for a MetroAccess ride by a cab in February 2004 and the meter was already running. It was a nine-mile trip from her home to her job at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, but the meter read $54. Although she had to pay only the MetroAccess fare, $2.40 at the time, she was concerned that the cabdriver was bilking MetroAccess for a trip that should have cost about $17.

After this kept happening, Haynes became so disturbed that she called James Zingale, Metro's director of procurement.

"He told me that he knew all about the problems, that he was aware of it," she said. "Then he gave me the project manager's name and number and told me to call him. And then he said, 'Good luck getting ahold of him, because the guy never even returns my calls.' "

Zingale said he remembered the call but not the content. "I hope I wasn't rude to her," he said.

The only authority to act on Haynes's complaint was the Montgomery County taxi inspector, who denied the driver's taxi license renewal and notified MetroAccess, records show. Weeks later, the same driver picked up Haynes again, this time working for a MetroAccess subcontractor that didn't require a taxi license, according to interviews and Montgomery County records.

John Hoffman, who recently resigned as the county's chief taxi inspector, said he forwarded the case to Metro and recommended that Transit Police investigate whether a wider pattern of fraud existed. "But they didn't seem to want to spend the time going through the records," he said.

LogistiCare and Mackel might have brought forward isolated fraud cases, but no one ever suggested "that there was a big problem and it was deep," White said.

In late 2003, Metro's auditor general began looking into allegations that some customers and drivers were booking fake trips. The probe broadened when the auditor began questioning the accuracy of LogistiCare's computer database, which contains pickup and drop-off times compiled from drivers' daily logs and was the basis for the company's on-time performance bonuses.

LogistiCare voluntarily provided information, including paper records, to Metro. Metro police said they subsequently executed a search warrant for the company's computer server. White said the grand jury is looking into allegations "that the data has been altered." But he would not release documents from Metro's investigation, nor would he say who or how many people were the focus of the allegations.

LogistiCare spokesman Ed Domansky said the company would have turned over its computer server without a search warrant if it had been asked. White's comments about the grand jury's focus came as a surprise to the company, Domansky said. "We're not aware of any company employees being approached or questioned by Metro about this subject or being subpoenaed by a grand jury or appearing before a grand jury," he said.

Roesle said no one at LogistiCare falsified data. But employees occasionally changed the electronic records to correct erroneous information, she said. "We did legitimate data cleanup," she said.

The only person charged with fraud in connection with Metro's investigation has been a Virginia cabdriver, Omar Aiman. He pleaded guilty in December to bilking $946 from Metro and $720 from LogistiCare by charging for rides he never provided. Metro police later discovered that he was ferrying MetroAccess riders for a different taxi company. He has since been barred from the program.

Metro Transit Police Capt. Michael Daly said police tried to pursue some of the fraud cases brought to their attention, but he added that they are difficult to prove. He said his department did not appreciate the scope of the MetroAccess problem until after the auditor detailed his findings in late 2004.

"Before that, we didn't even understand how the program worked, who bills who, who's the victim," Daly said. "Someone defrauding MetroAccess out of a ride might have slipped through the cracks if a detective has, say, a robbery he's working on."

Taxis are particularly susceptible to fraud because fewer checks are in place to keep the drivers honest and on time. In 2001, the Federal Transit Administration recommended that Metro substantially reduce its use of taxis, saying that would cut down on the potential for abuse as well as late trips.

But the agency's reliance on them has increased. Cabs provide roughly 30 percent of MetroAccess rides, compared with about 20 percent in 2001.

Inadequate Controls

The transit agency has one powerful tool that could help prevent MetroAccess fraud -- but hasn't used it effectively.

When LogistiCare began managing the service in 2000, Metro told the company it wanted global positioning devices on its vans and sedans. The equipment electronically tracks each vehicle's location for dispatchers and managers. Metro also asked for a card system that would electronically log the time, location and passenger's identity when a customer got in the vehicle and swiped a card through a reader. The agency paid $528,000 to LogistiCare toward the cost of the equipment.

But Metro initially didn't set a deadline, and LogistiCare took two years to find and install a system. The program has been hampered by technological problems and drivers who disable the equipment. And numerous riders said they've never been asked to use the swipe card system.

For Scott Hobbs, who has a nerve disorder, a more reliable system could have made all the difference.

Hobbs, 37, loved his job as a campus chaplain at Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington. "I am a minister. It is my calling," he said. But his disorder left him unable to walk in 1999, and he had to rely on MetroAccess to get to work. His ride was late so often, he was forced to quit in 2003, said Hobbs, who is a plaintiff in the suit against Metro.

The worst part was waiting for his ride home from the university, which could be hours late or not come at all, Hobbs said. Because he is also deaf, he would have to wheel himself back into his office and contact his wife, who would call to inquire about his tardy ride. "I would start praying that I would get home somehow," he said.

Now, Hobbs largely spends his days in his College Park home, his travel limited to the Internet. "I have been feeling very disappointed that there seems to be nothing I can do to fix the problem," he said. "When I started using MetroAccess, I thought I would be able to go anywhere. But the reality is that I spend most of my days at home."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

UNRELIABILITY: Marquette Henderson said his frequently late MetroAccess ride forced him to leave his job last year. He sometimes chose to walk home from work along the highway rather than wait.

Scott Hobbs, at home with wife Lene and daughter Elnora, said he was forced to quit a job because his MetroAccess ride was late so often.