HARRISBURG — Two officials with the Luzerne County Transportation Authority have been charged for submitting false ridership data to PennDOT, according to the state attorney general’s office.
The arrests come after a statewide grand jury investigation that recommended criminal charges.
According to the grand jury, Stanley Strelish, executive director of LCTA and Robb Henderson, LCTA operations manager, conspired to falsely inflate senior ridership data by directing drivers to depress the senior citizen rider button as many times as they want – a practice known as “hitting the button.”
Ghost Riders is short hand for the practice of falsely inflating ridership numbers in order to qualify for more public funding.
That’s the scheme the managers of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority were charged with on Wednesday.
Executive director Stanley Strelish, and operations manager Robb Henderson face a total of 52 criminal charges and now the LCTA board will decide what to do about their jobs.
Strelish walked into a magistrate’s office Wednesday morning near Harrisburg. Strelish faces a series of felony charges including tampering with public records, and conspiracy to commit theft by deception.
The state attorney general’s office says Strelish and Henderson were behind a plan to inflate senior ridership on LCTA buses and according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, to “defraud the commonwealth of $3.1 million.”
“They’re still charges, they’re not conclusions of anything, so we have to have further determinations made through the court system,” said LCTA solicitor Joseph Blazosek.
Blasozek says the authority’s board of directors plans to have an emergency meeting Tuesday night to decide what to do with Strelish and Henderson.
The indictments follow a PennDOT audit last year. it found that from 2007 to 2011, inflated senior ridership figures cost taxpayers $3.16 million in government reimbursements the LCTA was not entitled to.
PennDOT s audit reviewed video from buses comparing the LCTA’s reported senior ridership to the actual number of senior passengers.
On one route it found an LCTA driver claimed 53 senior riders during a day, when the audit found there was only one.
“That’s sad. That shouldn’t be,” said Sharon Natt of West Pittston.
Natt says she’s appalled by the indictments and by Strelish’s alleged threats to cut bus routes if ridership numbers weren’t high enough.
“It’s important that they have this so it they cut the funding, that’s going to be bad on us, definitely.”
Strelish had no comment at his arraignment near Harrisburg.
Operations manager Robb Henderson used his Facebook page to write, “Not everyone charged with a crime is guilty. People you thought were friends will lie for some personal vendetta.”
So far, there are no allegations that Strelish and Henderson used the inflated senior ridership numbers for their own personal benefit.
Strelish, 60, of Wilkes-Barre, is charged with seven counts of tampering with public records, seven counts of unsworn falsification to authorities, seven counts of false swearing, seven counts of obstructing administration of a government function, six counts of dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activity, six counts of theft by deception, six counts of conspiracy to commit theft by deception and one count of attempted theft by deception.
Henderson, 58, of Exeter, is charged with seven counts of conspiracy to commit tampering with public records or information, seven counts of conspiracy to commit aiding the consummation of a crime, seven counts of conspiracy to commit the obstruction of law or other governmental function and six counts of conspiracy to commit dealing in the proceeds of illegal activity.
The case will be prosecuted in Dauphin County by Senior Deputy Attorney General Bernard Anderson of the Office of Attorney General’s Criminal Prosecutions Section.