THEFT:17 collectors took $500k at Geo Washington Bridge
By Peter Samuel
James Donohue in the Bergen County NJ attorneys office is prosecuting the case. He says there is no evidence so far of any real conspiracy, just a lot of toll collectors committing the same kind of theft, perhaps because the word got around among them that the system had this loophole.
Donohue says they were simply stashing cash from UNREGISTERED vehicle passes, concealing it in their clothing and taking it away with them when they went off shift, or tour as local lingo has it. With cash tolls $4 and upward at the George, toll money is almost entirely paper bills, much more easily concealed of course than coinage of any value.
But lane equipment sensors including treadles and laser profilers generate a record of each toll pass and estimate the money due independent of the collectors toll terminal activity. So without an accomplice finessing that lane data the thefts should be quite quickly detected by the accounting system.
Ken Philmus director of the toll division of PANYNJ says the system worked perfectly. He says there was an honest mistake by an accountant who at first attributed discrepancies between lane and toll terminal data to problems with the treadles. For some weeks it was believed that malfunctions in treadles were generating the difference between lane and toll terminal data from the toll collectors.
Then when we checked that out we realized we had good data and some bad people, and the job was to work out what was happening, and build a case. At first we thought they were taking tolls and classifying vehicles as E-ZPass violators, people who just blew through a mixed-mode lane. But it wasnt that. It was very simple. They had got the idea that by doing a No class on the toll terminal there would be no record of the transaction.
The thieves were taking an average of $2,500/day out of average daily GWB receipts of $700,000 split approx $400k ET and $300k cash. So they were pocketing an average just under one percent of the toll plazas daily cash receipts. In terms of the equivalent of their salaries they were about on average doubling their incomes, for as long as they got away with it.
The investigative strategy was to let the thievery proceed while closely watching all toll collectors, keeping videotape and records of their thefts, allowing the amounts to accumulate. The thinking was that a shorter surveillance period and quick arrests might miss some of the thieves. And of course letting the thieving continue increased the amounts taken but also the likely jail time.
We did the whole bit. We had undercover people there, video, recordings, and live witnesses. I wasnt going to wink an eye at this, or quietly let them know and have them leave. I owed it to the good guys to make an example of the bad guys and to really nail them. It was very tough, I tell you. A lot of them were toll collectors I knew personally. I liked most of them. Many I had known them from the time I was manager of the George. We got the inspector-generals office in and the county police too. We let it go on while we built a really solid case and had the evidence on everyone who was doing it. I was determined wed get a case which would stick. You have to be able to demonstrate the technology works in court and that all the evidence is in place. We made the arrests there in the admin building as guys came off shift, or as they walked to their cars. It was quite dramatic, and very sad. It is very disappointing when you think these guys are loyal and they betray you like that.
Philmus says that what was encouraging was that a lot of people in the PA and among the police had to know of the investigation but no-one leaked anything: They (the thieves) were caught completely by surprise. For weeks we had to talk to these guys as if nothing was happening when of course we knew they were stealing our money. What was reassuring too was that we really had the toll system tested. The system is solid. It is better than it has ever been in protecting us against theft. It cant be beaten.
Lockheed Martin supplied and maintained the toll system which integrates ET and cash collection. At the time of the arrests the PANYNJ had about 120 fulltime toll collectors, so the thieves represented about one in seven.
Top of the rogues list was collector Ralph M Bunche, 43 of Roselle NY charged with stealing $90,368. The average theft charged is $30,000. Prosecutor Donohue says they hope to work on pleas by early in the new year. Several have been in jail unable to post bail. Philmus says he hopes theyll recover between a third and a half of the stolen money. Some of the thieves went out and bought themselves new cars, several of which have been seized. Bank accounts have been frozen: But they blew a lot of it and we wont see that.
A number of new part-time toll collectors were immediately hired after the arrests. Philmus says it was made very clear to them why there were jobs available, and what happened to those who were there before. Otherwise the PANYNJ is reducing its toll collector force by attrition because of the shift to ET.
A further safeguard Philmus hopes to implement is abolition of Class 2, two-axle, dual rear-tire vehicles, mostly beefed up pickups: It is very difficult for the equipment to distinguish these from class 1 with single back tires. Well be better off not needing to make that classification. (James Donohue, Bergen Co 201 556 2500#3666, K Philmus PANYNJ 212 435 4400)