Metrolink auditor probing irregularities at railroad is put on leave

Metrolink board puts chief auditor on leave while she is probing financial irregularities at railroad

Metrolink's chief auditor, who was probing financial and management irregularities at the six-county commuter railroad, has been placed on leave by the board of directors, an action that could prompt her resignation.

In a sign of continuing problems at Metrolink, the board took the action last Friday against Barbara Manning during a closed session before its regular meeting. The reason was not disclosed.

Manning, an experienced government auditor, was brought in almost 1 1/2 years ago to help improve the railroad's administration and accounting system, which was described in an internal agency report as a "morass."

Jeff Lustgarten, a Metrolink spokesman, confirmed that Manning was put on leave but declined further comment, stating that personnel matters are confidential. Board members also declined to discuss her situation. Manning could not be reached.

Metrolink, which has about 42,000 weekday boardings, serves Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

"Something does not seem right at the railroad," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a local nonprofit organization and advocate of public transportation. "They have a problem retaining people who can get to the bottom of things."

Problems surfaced at Metrolink early last year when its chief financial officer resigned following a scathing report that revealed accounting irregularities, poor management and record-keeping that made it difficult for officials to understand the railroad's financial standing.

The internal review by a special committee of two board members found that Metrolink had inadequate cash reserves to meet its financial obligations and that another cash account was short by an estimated $66 million. In addition, money from some accounts was improperly commingled and cash flows were difficult to track.

Since then, two interim chief financial officers have come and gone.

According to one of Manning's latest audits, Metrolink managers raised the wages of private security personnel by $5 an hour without board approval, which resulted in a budget shortfall that forced cuts in the railroad's security staff.

The audit also revealed that a proposal to boost the security firm's contract from $6.8 million to $13.9 million was done without determining whether the increase was justified.

"I continue to be disheartened by Metrolink's problems," said Carolyn Cavecche, an alternate board member who served on the special committee. "It's one step forward and three steps backward. I've had no problems with Manning's work as chief auditor."

Lustgarten said Metrolink was making substantial progress addressing the problems raised in last year's committee report. He noted that more effective financial controls have been implemented by the chief financial officer hired in March.

But Michael Hennessey, vice chairman of Metrolink's board, said the railroad still had significant work to do on its accounting system.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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