A TCAT employee was charged with grand larceny on Wednesday after an investigation revealed that she had diverted about $247,000 of the transit agency's funds to an unauthorized bank account. Cortland resident Pamela Lynn Johnson faces class C felony charges, grand larceny in the second degree.
Pamela Johnson, charged with embezzling from TCAT. Photo provided by IPD.The revelation comes in a joint announcement from Chief John R. Barber of the Ithaca Police Department and Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson, whose offices collaborated on the investigation. In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, KyuJung Whang, chairman of TCAT's board of directors, said, "Upon charges being filed today, TCAT officially terminated Ms. Johson's employment." Mr. Whang, vice president for facilities at Cornell, took over as TCAT board chair just this January.
TCAT officials say a routine annual financial audit had revealed "irregularities," suggesting that a "significant amount of money was missing" from the accounting system. The transit agency, a joint effort of the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County, and Cornell University, conducted an internal investigation and then approached the Ithaca Police Department.
"I'm proud of the effort put forth by Lead Investigator Fred Myers and members of the IPD Investigative Division who worked diligently to solve this crime," said Chief Barber in a statement. "The investigation required an immense amount of concentration and attention to detail to adequately prepare the case for prosecution."
Johnson appeared voluntarily in Ithaca City Court this afternoon with her attorney, and was arraigned on one charge of Grand Larceny in the second degree before being released on her own recognizance. IPD says additional charges are pending. "The criminal justice system will ultimately decide guilt and innocence," says DA Wilkinson, stressing that Johnson is presumed innocent until proven guilty as a matter of law, "but this is a strong case."
Investigators found that Johnson had diverted approximately $247,000 to a separate bank account over the course of several years, by creating false payments to a TCAT vendor. Investigators found that the vendor had never provided goods or services to TCAT, and that Johnson controlled the bank account.
Whang says TCAT is bringing in an independent forensic auditing firm "to fully scrutinize the agency's financial records." He says the District Attorney's office will seek to require Johnson "to make full restitution," in addition to pursuing criminal charges.
Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick said in a statement, "We believe in its mission and have worked hard to make sure TCAT has the resources necessary to operate a high quality transit system. It is deeply disappointing to learn that a steward of these resources allegedly put her personal interests ahead of the taxpayers, funding partners, and riders who support and rely on TCAT every day." The statement, co-signed by county legislator Mike Lane and Cornell University vice president Joel Malina, concluded, "We know that if the Board finds that lapses in oversight and control enabled this activity to occur over the course of several years, it will hold appropriate individuals accountable."
The embezzled funds represent over a third of the roughly $700,000 budget deficit TCAT faces, and over 1.8% of the agency's annual budgeted expenditures of nearly 13.5 million dollars. Officials have put off a plan to issue bus passes to all Ithaca City School District students and are considering eliminating free bus passes for all first-year Cornell University students, as part of efforts to close the budget gap.
Despite the funding shortfall, TCAT is an operational success. General manager Joe Turcotte said in January that the agency broke ridership records for the seventh year in a row in 2013, with 4,388,699 trips, a 6.3 increase over 2012 numbers. The agency has said economic pressures and the rising costs of gas have both led more and more area residents to use the bus service extensively, and driven up the costs of providing the service.