Following protocol, a team of Luzerne County Transportation Authority employees recently evaluated and ranked proposals from seven prospective auditing companies.
But instead of picking one of two companies tied with the highest score, an authority board majority hired the one ranked last.
Three board members who supported a top-ranked company from out of the area said the move sends the wrong message and goes against efforts to rebuild the authority’s reputation following an inflated bus ridership scandal that led to charges against two former top managers and the loss of millions in government funding.
Sticking to procedure ensures selections are “above board” and have no appearance of impropriety, said board member John Koch, who has worked as Inspector General for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division in Harrisburg.
“To some of us, this doesn’t look squeaky clean,” Koch said.
The staff selection team followed a board-approved procurement policy based on Federal Transit Authority procurement guidelines, said board member Sean Robbins. The FTA had instructed the authority to improve its purchasing guidelines during a review it completes every three years, officials said.
“It fosters good and impartial decision-making, which builds confidence and trust in the organization,” Robbins said of the policy. “When there is deviation from that process, without good reason, it raises questions and suspicion.”
According to authority members and documents:
Management initiated the public advertisement to see if other companies were interested in the work. Prociak & Associates LLC, a local company, had handled authority audits for at least eight years.
Three employees involved in finance and regulatory compliance independently scored the seven respondents based on their experience, work plan and cost.
Tied at the top were incumbent Prociak & Associates and newcomer Reinsel Kuntz Lesher LLP (RKL), which has several regional offices in central and eastern Pennsylvania.
Ranked last was Joseph R. Aliciene & Co. in Pittston.
Robbins, Koch and board member Valerie Kepner said they voted for RKL because they thought a fresh set of eyes could be beneficial and valued the company’s extensive experience handling public transportation authority audits and dealing with transportation regulations and best practices. Board member Sid Halsor also supported RKL.
RKL also was less expensive.
The quoted prices for three years, although the second and third years are optional:
• Prociak: $26,575 annually for all three years
• RKL: $21,750 first year, $22,150 second year and $22,550 third year
• Aliciene: $22,675 the first two years and $23,610 the third year
Authority Chairman Art Bobbouine said he agreed with board treasurer Charles Sciandra’s recommendation to hire Aliciene.
Also supporting Aliciene were board members Patrick Conway, Lynette Villano and Gary Polakoski.
“We wanted somebody who was close and local to answer any questions,” Bobbouine said.
Bobbouine said he’s confident the Aliciene company is equipped to perform a transportation authority audit.
“This company has been doing audits a long time and has enough government experience,” Bobbouine said. “I think they’ll do a good job and will be the first to make a motion to seek someone else if not.”
He believes the board’s purchasing regulations and procurement manual should be revised to involve the board in the ranking of auditing firms.
“The auditor works for the board. The administration is doing a fine job, but the purpose of the audit is to tell us whether the administration is doing a good job,” Bobbouine said.
The administration has maintained the federal government discourages board involvement in the ranking because the board must police any complaints from prospective contractors about the fairness of the rating process.
Villano said she supported hiring a new local firm and trusted the recommendation of Sciandra because he has a background in finance.
Sciandra, a former Pittston Area School Board member, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Kepner questioned the majority’s emphasis on selecting a local auditor.
“I thought it was positive selecting someone outside Luzerne County in this situation,” she said. “I trusted in the selection process, and now we’re not going with RKL and instead went with the auditing firm ranked dead last.”
Robbins said he and his colleagues are not questioning the competency of Aliciene as an auditing firm.
“I’m sure it is a reputable firm that does great work, but it’s only logical picking a firm already familiar with federal and state requirements involving transit authorities and all the ins and outs of transit funding,” he said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.