There’s A Horror Show Going On With The Baton Rouge Bus System

There are undoubtedly many of our readers who are quite familiar with the “issues” surrounding the Capitol Area Transit System, or CATS. This piece might not contain much in the way of news for those of you fitting that category.

For the rest, you might want to get some popcorn, or pudding. Then come back.

The thing to understand about CATS is that it’s set up as a subdivision of the state, with the East Baton Rouge Metro Council providing legislative oversight. CATS’ board is constituted as a body of nine members appointed by the Metro Council, and two CATS board members – Ryan Heck and Donna Collins-Lewis – double as Metro Council members.

CATS’ board has a majority on it which is not particularly concerned with financial controls. That majority is, however, particularly concerned with doling out lucrative do-nothing contracts to friends of that faction.

And that fact became pretty important last year when CATS, with the help of a bunch of civic organizations – some well-meaning and merely stupid, and others far more intelligent who knew exactly what they were doing – managed to pass a sizable tax increase to boost its funding.

Because in case you haven’t worked it out quite yet, CATS doesn’t break even. Nobody rides the bus in Baton Rouge; even poor people in this town have cars, and they’re very willing to drive them. Go to the poorest part of this town and there’s still a regular business being done at gas stations. A suburban, spread-out city like this one is doesn’t lend itself well to public transportation ridership, and this city doesn’t.

And a public transportation system in a city which isn’t going to have heavy ridership is only going to survive if it’s an extremely tightly-run ship. Which CATS has never been, and had no plan to be.

In fact, opponents of the CATS tax last year decried the absence of a plan for the $18 million per year it was going to bring in. But in a low-turnout election the proponents, perhaps most prominently led by an organization called Together Baton Rouge which is an affiliate of the Saul Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation, managed to squeeze enough votes out of the poor communities and a smattering of do-gooders to carry the day.

Ever since that tax passed, CATS’ status as a honey pot for some of the city’s worst crooked politicians has only blossomed. But it’s starting to look like that honey’s going sour.

Because last night, there were some developments. From Rebekah Allen’s very informative story at the Baton Rouge Advocate

A Capital Area Transit System board member used $1,484 of public bus system funds to pay his phone and satellite TV bills, according to CATS financial documents obtained by The Advocate.

Montrell McCaleb, who joined the CATS board in January 2012, denied using CATS funds for personal use when contacted for comment. But he also said he is resigning effective immediately because he has “bad bronchitis” that has been exacerbated by the stress of being on the board.

CATS’ chief financial officer notified CATS board President Isaiah Marshall and CATS attorney Creighton Abadie about the misuse of funds in a May 17 email.

However, as of Thursday, no report had been filed with authorities and no disciplinary action had been taken against McCaleb.

Between February and May, CATS funds were used to pay a Verizon Wireless account bill on three occasions and a Direct TV bill twice, CATS financial records show.

The customer listed as “Montrell Henderson” in bank documents used CATS’ bank routing number to pay the bills. McCaleb’s full name is Montrell Henderson McCaleb.

On May 17, CFO Gary Owens signed statements declaring the payments from the bus system’s Whitney Bank account were unauthorized and the bank subsequently reimbursed CATS.

“Somebody is setting me up,” McCaleb said Thursday. “I am getting off the board for health reasons. But I did not take any CATS money and I have no access to CATS funds.”

The thing you need to understand about Montrell McCaleb is that he’s got a room-temperature IQ. He’s almost literally dumb as a stump. Proof of that, if you will, comes from what he told Channel 2 in Baton Rouge yesterday

“I didn’t take any money from CATS,” said Montrell McCaleb. McCaleb resigned from the board of directors Thursday, hours before reports surfaced he used money to pay for a cell phone bill and television service.

McCaleb said he is accused of using the money to pay Verizon and DirecTV for service, one of which he does not have.

“I have Verizon, but not DirecTV,” McCaleb told WBRZ News 2.

He said he is innocent and believes someone is using his information.

“I dropped a folder with my personal documents in it,” McCaleb said. He said he never found the folder and said the mystery person trying to tarnish him used the documents against him. McCaleb added the documents had information that someone would have been able to use to pay bills.

In other words, you’re supposed to believe that some mysterious person stole his phone bill and paid it for him with CATS money, and then paid a DirecTV bill he doesn’t even generate for him with CATS money – and they did this to frame him.

You’re actually supposed to believe that. And you’re also supposed to believe that he’s really quitting because being on the CATS board is making his bronchitis act up.

Montrell McCaleb’s “day job” is President & Chief Executive Officer of the Motivating Students for Academic & Career Success Program. From his bio…

Montrell “MJ” McCaleb is the President & Chief Executive Officer of the Motivating Students for Academic & Career Success Program making him the highest ranking official in the organization.

Before getting into non-profit leadership and management McCaleb was a janitor and maintenance assistant at Urban Restoration Enhancement Corporation in Baton Rouge. Prior to UREC, McCaleb  had the privilege of working for former Louisiana Governors MJ Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco.

“Montrell McCaleb has distinguished himself as one of Louisiana’s most dynamic leaders, earning the respect of people from across the state and nation,” Says Trustee Cheryl A. Dunn who has known the president for quite sometime. “Throughout his career in both business and public service, he has demonstrated an ability to approach important matters strategically and creatively.

He was mopping floors at a left-wing non-profit and somebody decided to stake him in his own non-profit.

And then somebody put him on the CATS board.

And then somebody paid his phone bill with CATS’ money.

McCaleb is making himself out to be a patsy here, and if we’re willing to take him at his word it’ll lead us down the rabbit hole.

Let’s go back to what Rebekah Allen wrote…

CATS’ chief financial officer notified CATS board President Isaiah Marshall and CATS attorney Creighton Abadie about the misuse of funds in a May 17 email.

May 17 was two months ago. How come this didn’t come to a head until last night?

That’s what it looks like Heck, and others at the Metro Council, want to know. And that’s why Heck and Loftus brought this to the people who might prosecute somebody for things like this yesterday.

Why, for instance, did Marshall wait until mid-July to turn over evidence of McCaleb’s alleged wrongdoing, when he was first made aware of it May 17? Ryan Heck, who is on both the CATS board and the Metro Council, says when he found out about the issue Wednesday he immediately recognized it as something that should be referred to authorities. “My legal adviser told me I immediately needed to report something that was felonious in nature,” Heck says.

As to why Marshall and CATS executives did not do the same two months ago, Heck will only say, “you can draw your own conclusions.” CATS board leadership could not be reached for comment this morning. McCaleb has reportedly denied any wrongdoing.

The implication here is that Isaiah Marshall and some of his pals on the CATS board, like Collins-Lewis and Dalton Honore’, son of the state representative of the same name, “owned” McCaleb and kept his freebies quiet in return for his vote.

Because there were bids out by four companies for a lucrative $1.5 million contract for program management of the bus system. And Marshall, Honore and Collins-Lewis were three of four members of the “management committee” for CATS who made a recommendation to go with the one company out of the four with zero experience in working with public transportation.

The Times-Picayune’s Quincy Hodges was on hand for that clown show last week…

After 45 minutes of questioning and debate Tuesday — mostly from Capital Area Transit System board and committee member Deborah Roe — the CATS management committee chose to recommend SJB Group to the full board as the system’s next program manager. Three other companies are vying for the program manager position, including Veolia Transportation, a national firm that oversees the New Orleans mass transit system, MV Transportation and URS Corporation.

The recommendation calls for CATS to enter into an 18-month contract to manage and supervise the public transit system’s route changes and service upgrades. The recommendation goes to the CATS board at their July 16 meeting.

Much of the controversy surrounded the scoring criteria used to evaluate the four companies and how a company — SJB Group — with no mass transit oversight background could rank first over companies with extensive transportation backgrounds. A six-member evaluation team was put together to score each companies’ proposal and the highest score, according to Board President Isaiah Marshall, typically gets a the final recommendation.

Marshall wouldn’t say who was on the evaluation committee. It consisted of himself, Honore, CATS board member Kenneth Perret, CATS’ HR director Shonda Buchanan (who was there to follow Marshall’s orders), Jared Loftus, the former chairman of the CATS board who’s still a member of it despite being deposed from his chairmanship in a Marshall-led coup, and Jason Wilson, a manager at the Baton Rouge Airport who was the “community representative.”

It was Wilson, it appears, who put the fix in. From another Hodges piece at the T-P

At issue is Wilson’s decision to award scores of zero in some categories to a pair of companies: runner-up Veolia Transportation, a national company with extensive mass transportation management experience, and URS Corp. The final evaluation scores were so close that SJB Group finished first by four points; the zero awarded to Veolia in the “approach to the project and ability to meet deadlines” category was the difference between coming in first and second.

But there’s more. What else became an item of controversy was SJB’s choice to hire Sydni Lloyd-Shorter as its project manager for the CATS contract. Sydni Lloyd-Shorter just happened to be on the commission which recommended the CATS tax in the first place, and she’s also an operative with Together Baton Rouge. And she’s an employee of Raymond Jetson, the longtime North Baton Rouge political fixer who was instrumental in turning out the vote in favor of the tax.

Does this start to come together for you?

What it ought to look like is that Marshall and Honore and the rest of the gang were attempting to hook up that CATS tax hosepipe out of the wallets of Baton Rouge property owners into the wallets of the people who had worked to get that tax passed in the first place.

A classic case of voting yourselves money, if you will.

This is what you get when there is a fat revenue stream hooked up to a governmental entity with absolutely no plan how to use it.

And everybody now has egg on their faces.

Particularly one of the good guys in this mess. Jared Loftus, who is fairly well respected as a smart guy and a young businessman on the rise, misguidedly thought he was doing some good for the community by advocating that tax last year. At the time he was the chairman of the CATS board and he swore up and down that he’d make sure that tax money was used properly. Except what he didn’t realize was that he was only a bad vote away from no longer being the chairman and having no real power to back up his pledge. So he has egg on his face, and the only way to remove it is to blow the whistle on Marshall and his compadres for the pretty naked attempt to pillage CATS funds this week’s events have exposed.

But now, the FBI and the DA will get to unravel this thing. And we’ll be treated to a fresh round of bloodletting on the CATS board, while that operation still doesn’t have a CEO since Brian Marshall, who is not related to Isaiah, was forced to resign in April amid rumors that he was “extra-friendly” with C. Denise Marcelle, a Metro Councilwoman who also cranked up her political machine to get that tax passed.

Meanwhile, that tax Marcelle, Jetson, Together Baton Rouge and the rest managed to impose on the public will continue for the next nine and a half years, with some $175 million set to fill that hosepipe. Who’ll benefit from it is anybody’s guess.



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