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Investigators say MetroAccess contractor billed agency for picking up customers who had died

In this file photo a MetroAccess driver (R) helps Denise Rush with her things after being picked up from her workplace in the District.  (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

A Metro contractor billed the transit agency for MetroAccess services it did not provide– including transporting customers who had died, according to a settlement announced Wednesday.

In a lawsuit filed in February 2013 and settled in May of this year, MV Transportation also was accused of charging Metro for the use of wheelchair-accessible vehicles on trips taken by customers who did not need wheelchairs.  The rate for trips that require wheelchair-accessible service is $65, nearly twice as much as non-wheelchair trips.

MV Transportation agreed to pay $184,000 for the “billing errors” but it did not admit to any wrongdoing, company spokeswoman Nikki Frenney-Wiggins said in a statement.

MV Transportation is one of five companies that Metro contracts with to run MetroAccess, the region’s door-to-door paratransit service for the elderly and people with disabilities.

The company is alleged to have “submitted inaccurate invoices for reimbursement for MetroAccess transportation services that charged for trips taken by customers who were known or should have been known by MV Transportation to be deceased,” according to the complaint that was filed by two former employees three years ago, and investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Frenney-Wiggins said MV Transportation relied heavily on subcontractors to conduct the services and “At times, there were issues promptly conveying updates to passenger information from the subcontractor to MV to WMATA which led to billing errors.”

Officials on Wednesday announced they had reached the settlement agreement, resolving the claims that the contractor falsely billed Metro between Jan. 1, 2005 and Dec. 31, 2013. During that time, Metro paid MV about $168 million for providing paratransit services in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, according to the company.

“We expect that our taxpayers’ contributions will be used for the benefit of riders, not lost to fraudulent billing practices,” Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring said in a joint statement with his counterparts from the District and Maryland. “I’m proud we were able to work with our partners in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the federal government to investigate and resolve these allegations, and riders can be sure that we will remain vigilant in protecting their investment in Metro.”

The investigation began after two former MV drivers filed a complaint alleging wrongdoing by the company and other MetroAccress contractors. The complaint was filed under the False Claims Act, which protects whistleblowers who denounce a contractor that is defrauding the government.

The settlement was first reported by The Hill.

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Federal and local investigators uncovered multiple instances where the company defrauded Metro, said Robert Marus, a spokesman with the Office of the Attorney General in the District.

“They were charging for so-called canceled trips for riders who had passed away much earlier,” he said. Under the contract, he said, MV Transportation was allowed to bill for services provided when a MetroAccess van was dispatched to a home and the passenger didn’t show up.

He said the company was aware that some of those riders had died, but it still sent the services to the door and billed Metro for those cancellations. The company, he said, also sent wheelchair-accessible vehicles when the services were for passengers who they knew would not need the service.

“Drivers will often arrive at a pick up location, only to be told by a family member or co-resident, if the pick up location is a senior citizen or disabled person, that the patron scheduled to be picked up has passed away,” the complaint said. “Drivers report back to their supervisors orally and in writing when a patron passes away and can no longer use MetroAccess services.

However, Defendants intentionally fail or failed to cancel subsequent scheduled pick ups for deceased patrons for weeks or more and charge WMATA for the deceased patrons’ pick ups.”

Under the settlement, D.C. will get $35,831; Maryland, $92,000; and Virginia, $22,531. The two former van drivers will receive $27,612.

Since the allegations, MV Transportation has continued to provide services to Metro, but the company no longer provides transportation services.  MV manages the MetroAccess call center operations under a five-year, $82-million contract that ends in 2018.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said in a statement Tuesday that while Metro was not a party in the lawsuit, it cooperated fully with the Justice Department  investigation.

“Metro takes allegations of fraud seriously and has a monitoring process and internal controls in place to prevent and detect fraud,” she said.

Attorney Brian Joseph Markovitz, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, P.A., who represented the two workers who first brought the case, said the settlement is good news for the region, especially in light of Metro’s recent financial and operation troubles.

“Whenever anybody takes money away from the budget under false pretenses– it hurts all of us,” Markovitz said. “It was really important that my clients came forward and reported what they saw.”

MetroAccess provides about 2 million trips annually at a price tag of about $121 million — of which more than 90 percent is paid with by subsidies from the jurisdictions served by Metro. The transit agency projects that MetroAccess — now the nation’s fifth-largest paratransit service, with 675 vehicles — could add at least 1 million trips and more than $50 million in operating expenses in the next decade.  It is one of Metro’s most expensive services.

Marus, of the Office of the Attorney General in the District, said the case should serve as a reminder that the region’s attorneys general “will be vigilant to ensure that taxpayers funds are not misused. We will bring actions like this against contractors or any other individual or organization that cheats our taxpayers.”