Prompted by revelations of excessive spending by Chicago Housing Authority executives, another governmental agency—the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA)—has revoked credit card privileges for most employees, officials said.
The move also follows curious expenditures by a high-ranking RTA official, Jody Plahm, whose RTA-issued credit card was used in 2009 to pay $940 for a child’s tuition at Mother McAuley, an all-girls Catholic high school on the Far Southwest Side, according to records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act by the Better Government Association and FOX Chicago News.
That charge was considered an accident, and was reimbursed, but other personal expenses later ended up on the card, so Plahm surrendered it in recent weeks, RTA officials said.
In June, the BGA and FOX Chicago found that the CHA’s CEO, Lewis Jordan, had used his taxpayer-funded credit card on numerous meals at fancy restaurants, and on gifts for his staff. As a result, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel suspended credit cards at city-related agencies, including the CHA, and ordered a review. Jordan denied doing anything wrong, but soon resigned.
The Emanuel administration announced this week that the mayor was scaling back the number of government-issued credit cards among city-related agencies from roughly 500 to about 30 to limit abuses.
That situation helped prompt the executive director of the RTA—which oversees Pace, Metra and the CTA, but isn’t under Emanuel’s direct purview—to do away with most cards at the RTA.
The executive director, Joseph Costello, told the BGA that he didn’t want to get into a situation where cards were getting abused, and he felt there wasn’t much of a need for them.
“It’s kind of handy to have one, but we really don’t need it,” Costello said, adding that “inadvertent mistakes happen, but they don’t happen if you don’t have cards.”
Until last month, there were a dozen or so credit cards held by top RTA staffers, including Costello. Now there are four or five cards that will be used sparingly, officials said.
“Going forward, the only credit cards maintained by the RTA will be held by (i) the Procurement Division, for making RTA purchases, (ii) the HR Division, for paying training and development costs, (iii) the RTA’s travel coordinator, for booking flights and hotels for business trips, and (iv) the Secretary of the RTA, for paying any expenses related to RTA meetings,” the agency said in a written response to a request for credit card statements.
In other words, Costello said, “If we want to order some pencils, sign someone up for a training class, there will be a couple [of credit cards] in the desk drawers to use…But we don’t have them for travelers or to go around town.”
Or for employees to pay for child-related expenses.
Plahm, who makes $127,000 a year and did not return telephone calls from the BGA, also used her RTA credit card earlier this year to cover a $48 fee for the ACT—an exam taken by high school kids and used by colleges to gauge prospective students.
That also was called an “accidental charge” and reimbursed by Plahm, records show.
Questionable expenses were not limited to her, though.
Aside from a number of meals charged on RTA credit cards, officials at the agency—which funds and advocates for public transit—also expensed a variety of taxi rides in the Chicago area.
This story was reported and written by Robert Herguth, the BGA’s editor of investigations. Contact us with tips, suggestions and at (312) 821-9030, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.