A recently unsealed lawsuit alleges that MetroAccess and MetroAccess contractors steered taxpayer-funded paratransit service to favored firms and subcontractors, resulting in longer trips and more expensive rides for the region’s most vulnerable commuters.
In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt by the owner of a Maryland cab company, plaintiff Scott Bretner alleges that Metro and three of its contractors broke the law by shifting MetroAccess dispatch responsibilities from one contractor, MV Transportation, to another, Transdev North America.
The suit alleges that this led to a pattern of “self-dealing” in which Transdev would assign taxi trips to a service it owns and in other cases direct passengers to MetroAccess vans unnecessarily for its own financial benefit.
“Transdev is steering riders to use the vans unnecessarily, presumably to inflate its revenues, notwithstanding that vans often must travel from distant points including Virginia to serve riders in Prince George’s County,” the complaint reads.
MetroAccess is the transit agency’s door-to-door service for the elderly and people with disabilities. The contract splits dispatch and service delivery responsibilities to prevent the kind of conflict Bretner alleges. Transdev is responsible for providing 50 percent of MetroAccess service, and the remaining share of trips is to be divided between two other firms not named in the suit, according to the contract.
Further, the suit alleges that a third contractor, Medical Transportation Management, the company contracted to oversee MetroAccess, failed to bring the alleged conflict of interest to light.
“MV has continued to collect funds provided by the Federal Government and the compact jurisdictions despite knowingly and intentionally surrendering its responsibilities to Transdev,” the suit reads. “MTM has utterly failed to provide any meaningful quality assurance safeguards or oversight of Transdev and MV,” the suit says.
Metro did not respond to questions about the lawsuit. A spokesman said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.
Transdev declined to comment on the lawsuit.
MV Transportation and MTM did not respond to several email requests for comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland did not respond to an inquiry as to why it declined to intervene in the suit. The United States is named as a co-plaintiff along with the District.
Bretner’s attorney said summonses have yet to be served in the suit, so the defendants have not responded in court.
With about 43,000 registered users, MetroAccess is the transit agency’s fastest-growing and most expensive service. The agency spends more than $100 million annually to provide the service through five contractors.
MetroAccess performance dropped sharply during a stretch beginning last fall — at one point, on-time performance was down nearly 10 percentage points from target — but has recovered in recent months, according to the latest figures. Pressed to explain the performance drop in a recent report, Metro and its contractors blamed the issues on a driver shortage that left the companies 10 percent short of the 1,000 needed to run at full capacity.
It’s unknown, however, whether problems with dispatch factored into the service decline.
Bretner, who owns Transportation Maintenance Services, Blue Bird Cab Co., and Prince George’s Yellow Cab Company, said in the lawsuit that he was thwarted in his attempts to become a MetroAccess subcontractor after months of “obfuscation and delay” as the alleged scheme unfolded. Bretner’s attorney, Ryan S. Spiegel, said the alleged offenses are particularly egregious, given the vulnerable population MetroAccess serves.
Neither Spiegel nor Bretner could immediately provide evidence directly supporting their claims, which were said to be based upon “information and belief,” but they said they planned to present evidence in court.
“In this case, the MetroAccess contract at issue was very clear that there were supposed to be different silos of activity that were supposed to be intentionally separate and independent,” Spiegel said in an interview. “The contract was also clear that the service providers were supposed to use a very specific system to provide a vulnerable population with a necessary service.
“We think the evidence is pretty strong that in this case, these defendants knowingly violated those obligations.”
In addition to the contractors, the lawsuit filed by Bretner names Metro and MetroAccess chief Christian Kent as bearing responsibility in the alleged arrangement. Metro, on behalf of Kent, declined to comment.
Bretner claims that Transdev, Metro, Kent, MTM and MV Transportation violated the federal and state False Claims Acts by “falsely certifying that they would comply with local laws governing taxicab services and then knowingly circumventing those laws.” Further, the lawsuit says, Metro and its paratransit contractors “knowingly presented” or conspired to present “false claims to obtain government money under the . . . MetroAccess program.”
It goes on to claim that Transdev has been directing customers onto vans unnecessarily, despite the fact that many customers in Prince George’s County — the most popular MetroAccess jurisdiction — can walk and don’t require wheelchair-accessible vans.
“Now that Transdev is essentially in control of the [call center], it has every incentive to use MetroAccess vans more often than necessary, because its reimbursement rate from [Metro] for those van trips — approximately $65 per ride — is much higher than the rate for subcontractor taxi trips billed at $3.77 per mile,” the complaint alleges.
“Indeed, [Metro], through Mr. Kent and others, has been knowingly complicit in this unlawful conduct by Transdev,” the lawsuit says.
The suit comes three years after another Maryland cab company, Challenger Transportation, alleged a conflict of interest in the awarding of the MetroAccess contract because then-Metro board chairman Tom Downs also helmed the board of advisers for Veolia Transportation of North America (now Transdev North America) at the time the agreement was reached. That lawsuit, also filed in U.S. District Court, has not been resolved, and Bretner’s suit renews the conflict-of-interest concerns, alleging that Downs’s failure to disclose those ties at the time was a violation of the law.
Downs said that while he knew from internal conversations at Veolia that the company was considering bidding for the MetroAccess contract, he recused himself from discussions of any potential contract.
He said he also recused himself from any action, contact or information about the bid. In addition, he physically left Metro headquarters whenever the contract was discussed, he said.
“I was physically removing myself from the board meeting and to be extra safe, I said I was leaving the building during this discussion,” he said.
A written recusal followed, Downs said.
Asked whether his dual roles as Metro board chairman and chairman of Veolia North America’s board could have contributed in any way to the contract’s award: “If you doubt [former Metro General Manager] Rich Sarles’s integrity,” Downs said. “I asked Rich to make sure that . . . I received no verbal or written information at any time from any staff and that they were not to even accidentally provide me with any information.”
The suit also accuses another cab company, Sun Cab, of benefiting from Transdev’s arrangement. It says Transdev dispatched taxi trips to companies unlicensed for access services in Prince George’s, with the money going back into the parent corporation’s pocket.
“By controlling the [dispatch services], Transdev has directed a vast majority of the taxi trips in the overall MetroAccess service region to Sun Cab, which Transdev also owns,” the suit alleges. “Therefore Transdev is able to engage in self-dealing and to ‘double dip’ and pay itself twice for each such instance of taxi service delivery.”
Reached by phone, a person who identified himself as Sun Cab’s general manager referred any questions about the lawsuit to Transdev.
The amended complaint was filed in June, but the case was under seal until late that month as the jurisdictions named as co-plaintiffs decided whether to intervene. Maryland and Virginia sought to remove themselves from the case, and late last month, a federal judge asked that any claims filed on their behalf be dismissed.