He left his job accused of misusing taxpayer dollars. Then he was hired to run Charlotte’s bus system

WBTV Investigates: New questions about how CATS vets top contractors for bus system
A hiring decision by the company contracted by the City of Charlotte to run the city’s bus system is raising questions for city leaders
Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 5:42 PM EDT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A hiring decision by the company contracted by the City of Charlotte to run the city’s bus system is raising questions for city leaders about whether CATS executives are asleep at the wheel when it comes to oversight of the bus operations division.

The company charged with operating the day-to-day bus operations, RATP Dev, hired an executive who had just resigned from his previous job after an investigation into the misuse of taxpayer dollars.

In his new role working for RATP Dev, the executive was named General Manager of CATS’ Bus Operations Division.

What’s more concerning for city leaders is that the move was made without any serious vetting from CATS leadership, despite contractual obligations that gives the city the ability to interview and approve senior leaders brought in by the company.

Instead, CATS CEO John Lewis said he was not made aware of any of the previous allegations against the new person leading his bus system.

Until a recent WBTV investigation, virtually none of the members of Charlotte’s city council knew the extent to which RATP Dev managed the city’s bus operations.

The questions about the contractor continue while WBTV has uncovered problems with ghost buses, broken fareboxes, misleading operator absence reports and a lack of security officers at transit centers. City Manager Marcus Jones announced a review of CATS organizational structure and leadership team following some of WBTV’s investigations.

Now, even Charlotte city councilmembers are wondering if CATS has dropped the ball when it comes to overseeing the bus division.

In late 2020, RATP Dev hired Ben Limmer and placed him as General Manager of the Bus Operations Division for CATS. Limmer was previously the CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority until he resigned from that position in March 2020.

An internal investigation found Limmer provided a contractor with “improper inside information about HART’s procurement needs.” The investigation determined he violated eight different policies related to spending taxpayer dollars with contractors and on personal expenses.

In his new role working for RATP Dev, the executive was named General Manager of CATS’ Bus Operations Division.

Limmer and HART reached a settlement agreement. He voluntarily resigned and HART dropped the rest of the investigation.

WBTV asked CATS CEO John Lewis why Limmer was brought on in such an integral role following the controversy at his previous job.

“Ben, number one, has never been a city employee. He worked for RATP Dev and I believe that employment relationship ended late last year, maybe early this year,” Lewis said.

A reporter for WBTV asked Lewis if he had been made aware of the investigation into Limmer at his previous job.

“Ben worked for RATP Dev if you’re going to ask employee relations questions, you’re going to have to direct that to RATP Dev,” Lewis said.

But his background is CATS business. According to the contract between RATP Dev and the City of Charlotte, the city must approve any hires or transfers of key personnel positions, including general manager. The city also has the right to interview them and the ability to remove and replace any personnel.

“Did that ever come up?” a WBTV reporter asked Lewis.

“I knew they were bringing in a new general manager who had extensive transit experience at multiple transit agencies and there was no reason that I knew of at the time to not accept their recommendation,” Lewis said.

“So, did you vet him ahead of time?” a WBTV reporter asked again.

“He is not a city employee, so I did not vet him, the vetting would be done by RATP Dev,” Lewis said.

In the contract with RATP Dev, the general manager position is specifically noted as a “critical role” and it is “required that this person be identified and his/her resume included” when there is a position change.

“Do you know when you were made aware of the allegations against him in Hillsborough County?” a WBTV reporter asked Lewis.

“(I’ve) not been made aware. I’ve heard rumors, but again that’s not my role to get into the background of a private company employee,” Lewis said.

“Even one that is managing the bus operations division?” a WBTV reporter asked.

“That individual came with great transit experience. They (RATP Dev) made their decision to bring him in and looking at his resume, there was nothing that would have led myself to not allow that individual to serve as the general manager,” Lewis said.

There’s frustration growing among Charlotte City Councilmembers about the continued leaking of bad news coming out of CATS that are revealed by WBTV instead of by CATS leadership.

“They’ve got to be very forthcoming with the bad news too because that’s as or more important than celebrating the things that are going right,” Councilmember Larken Egleston said.

Egleston said he expects more accountability from CATS process when it comes to hiring such important positions.

“I do think that the expectation should be that we are having at least as much oversight over them as we have over our own employees,” Egleston said.

“In this case it seems like the ball was dropped.”

Egleston’s concern, and that of several other councilmembers, is that the continued shortcomings of CATS come as one of the city’s top priorities is to sell city and county residents on a new one cent sales tax to fund massive improvements to buses, light rail, roads, sidewalks and more.

“Much of which will be money that’s allocated to CATS to spend on CATS projects, projects that will ultimately be managed by CATS on the backend,” Egleston said.

“We’ve got to have more confidence in the organization and voters need to have more confidence, not only in the organization but the city as a whole.”

While Egleston is calling for more confidence, WBTV is seeking more transparency.

It is unclear exactly when Limmer left his CATS position and the reason why.

WBTV requested all records the city has on approving or removing key personnel from contractor RATP Dev and emails from CATS executives mentioning Limmer and the contractor’s name. The city hasn’t produced any of those records yet.

WBTV reached out to both RATP Dev and Limmer to ask for a statement in response to this report. Neither responded with a comment for publication.

In February 2020, an attorney for Limmer told the HART board that “Mr. Limmer appreciates he made mistakes, and he again apologizes. These were not willful, deliberate, or intentional and neither he nor anyone else personally benefitted from these errors.”

While Limmer has a history of questions about his procurement practices, CATS has its own problems that have not yet been resolved.

An internal audit from 2021 found “CATS has not consistently followed established City policies for the procurement of goods and services.”

The audit largely focuses on CATS’ internal issues but makes several mentions of RATP and its subsidiary Transit Management of Charlotte.

WBTV’s own analysis of the problems raised in the audit indicates the violations and issues addressed happened prior to Limmer’s arrival at the bus division.

Overall, the auditors cited RATP and CATS for their “resistance to complying with city-wide procurement policies, and lack of monitoring of actions taken by BOD contractor RATP Dev which are not coordinated with the City and continues to result in policy violations and increase risks to operations.”

In a record request filed on May 24th, WBTV requested a list of the policy violations mentioned in the audit. CATS and the City of Charlotte have not produced those records.

While Limmer was still the General Manager at bus operations, CATS and RATP Dev both recommended that RATP Dev take over the procurement process to alleviate those issues.

“The way this structure was set-up, they (RATP Dev) have a performance based contract, and it does not make sense, and it was not operating correctly, to have the city handle the procurement. Buying tires, buying filters, purchasing fuel, etc,” Lewis told WBTV.

An update from the city’s internal auditors said the city engaged auditing firm Grant Thornton “to conduct a further review of CATS’ procurement environment.” WBTV asked for an update on that review but the city has not provided a response.

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